By Joe Henricksen
Everyone always answers with "It's March" whenever there is an upset, buzzer-beater or a goose-bumps on your arm, chills in your spine game. And they're saying it again just four days into this magical month we call March Madness.
But if the first week of the Class 3A and 4A state tournament is any indication, March 2011 is going to be an "It's March" with a giant exclamation point behind it. While there were a fair share of blowouts, this was as wild of a regional week as Illinois prep basketball has seen in quite some time.
There were stunners and nail-biters even before the regional finals tipped off, but on Friday alone there were 14 one-possession regional championship games, including five overtime games, one of the most bizarre finishes in memory and a game played under protest.
But there is no better place to start than the near jaw-dropping shocker that took place at Naperville North.
Benet Academy, unbeaten, No. 1 in the state, nationally ranked and enjoying a thrill ride that never seems to stop, nearly had its dream season come crashing down two weeks too early. Naperville North forced two overtimes, thanks to senior Matt LaCosse, with an opportunity to shock the state in the closing seconds -- missing a close shot attempt -- before Benet escaped and survived with a 43-42 win.
Would this one have gone down as the greatest upset in state tournament history Thankfully for Benet, that debate doesn't even need to be discussed. Now the hype and buzz can start for Benet-Boatright. The state's best team takes on the state's most dazzling player in a Tuesday night sectional semifinal that is a rematch of the exact same game that Benet won a year ago.
And speaking of Boatright, there is no player that has done more damage to one team than what the dynamic Boatright has done to Neuqua Valley over the past two years.
Think about this:
• A year ago, Boatright poured in 45 points to end Neuqua Valley's season in a dramatic regional championship game.
• In the first regular-season matchup this year, Boatright scores a game-high 32 points, including the winning basket with 15 seconds left in a 64-62 Tomcats victory.
• In the February rematch, Boatright pumps in 36 points in a 78-71 win to end Neuqua's conference stranglehold.
• And then the "Boat Show" did it one more time Friday night. Boatright polished off Neuqua again with 32 points in another regional overtime win.
In the last four matchups with Neuqua Valley, Boatright went 4-0 and averaged 36 points a game.
It's their time -- finally
Niles North will be able to dust the cobwebs out of the basketball trophy case. There is no program enjoying more success this season with less tradition than Niles North. But with 22 wins on the season and a regional title victory over Glenbrook North Friday night, thanks in large part to star Abdel Nader, the less-than-memorable basketball past at Niles North is quickly forgotten.
Niles North is now in some unfamiliar territory -- a New Trier Sectional semifinal showdown with top-seed Niles Notre Dame Tuesday night. This basketball program, which has averaged less than 8 wins a season over the past 20 years, won just its second regional championship in the last 50 years. Nader, meanwhile, is now a hot commodity on the recruiting front after de-committing from New Mexico.
How about that side of the bracket
While two schools from Niles go at it in one New Trier Sectional semifinal, the No. 11 and No. 15 seeds face off on the other side of the bracket. Highly-successful Bob Williams now has a Cinderella story to add to his coaching resumé as his 11th-seeded Niles West team upset Maine South in overtime. Over the last five years, Niles West has averaged 7 wins a season; now the Wolves have their first championship since winning back-to-back regional titles in 2003 and 2004.
And then there is the March miracle worker -- Schaumburg coach Matt Walsh. Last year he guided the Saxons to a regional title and sectional final berth as a No. 13 seed. This season the Saxons are a No. 15 seed and one win from getting back to a sectional championship game after beating both Evanston and New Trier out of the Central Suburban League South. This year, however, Schaumburg has a respectable 17 wins under its belt, features better depth and is more cohesive.
That sets up a sectional matchup of intrigue as Niles West and Bob Williams square off with Schaumburg, the program Williams built into a state power a decade ago.
Time for some Sawvell love
Is there a player that has had a better and more productive season with less fanfare than the blue-collar Ryan Sawvell of Mundelein? The Evansville-bound Sawvell put the Mustangs on his back in a regional final win over Waukegan, scoring 32 points with 10 rebounds and 7 blocked shots.
A few weeks ago in the Hoops Report's Three-Pointer column in Friday's Sun-Times, it was mentioned that perhaps no coach has done more with less than Deerfield's Bret Just. This was a team that graduated its top eight players from last year's 25-win team that shared the Central Suburban League North title. Plus, Just welcomed back a grand total of 3 points a game heading into this season.
In addition to battling for the top spot in the CSL North up until the final two weeks of the season and winning 18 games, Deerfield claimed its second straight regional crown. This time, though, as a No. 11 seed, knocking off Barrington 45-41 in overtime.
No drama needed
When teams were placed in their sectional assignments two months ago, the Argo Sectional and York Sectional were recognized as two of the better sectionals in the state. Hopefully these two sectionals, which both feed into the Hinsdale Central Supersectional, are just top heavy and drama-filled sectional games await.
But in the eight regional title games played in these two sectionals, seven of the eight games were decided by double digits. The average victory margin for the eight winners was 18 points, with the only close one in the end being Whitney Young's 50-46 win over St. Ignatius.
The biggest surprise came in a regional rivalry featuring Proviso East and Proviso West. In an early February matchup, Proviso East pounded Proviso West 83-58. This time an under-the-radar and dangerous Proviso West team got its revenge, winning 61-50 over the No. 2 seed Pirates.
A scoring drought and bizarre finish for the ages?
While there probably isn't any official record keeping when it comes to this peculiar stat, when is the last time there has been so few points scored in regional title games in one sectional? The regional title game point totals churned out in the Jacobs Sectional included six of the eight teams unable to score more than 36 points in a game. Hey, they were at least close. Here are your regional final scores in the Jacobs Sectional:
• Rockford Auburn 59, Rockford Boylan 43
• South Elgin 33, Bartlett 32
• Huntley 34, McHenry 32
• Elgin 36, Dundee-Crown 35
The highlight of these low-scoring slugfests -- and without question the most bizarre finish in the state this March -- was South Elgin claiming its first basketball regional title in school history.
Bartlett led South Elgin 32-31 with 2.4 seconds remaining. After a Bartlett player intercepted a South Elgin pass at midcourt and was fouled to all but end the game with 1.5 seconds left, several players on the Bartlett bench stormed the floor. As a result, a technical foul was called on Bartlett. South Elgin's Jake Maestranzi stepped to the line and the sophomore sank both free throws for the 33-32 win and regional title.
And the protest
Every Class 4A and 3A regional final Friday night was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. except one -- Marshall vs. Orr, which was officially scheduled to tip off at 6:00 p.m. The problem was that Orr thought it was a 7:30 p.m. start time and arrived late for the game. While Orr did win 60-54 behind the play of Mycheal Henry (25 points, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks), Marshall played the game under protest. The likelihood of anything transpiring from the "official protest" is slim to none, which means Orr is on its way to a semifinal matchup with Riverside-Brookfield Wednesday night.