By Roy & Harv Schmidt
There may be no player in the state who has been more scrutinized from the time he was in eighth grade until now more than Schaumburg's Cully Payne. In fact, the debate will probably forever linger on regarding how good of a college player he will be at Alabama. However, after watching him turn in two clutch performances at the prestigious Pontiac Holiday Tournament, we wonder if anyone else is thinking what we are thinking.
To cut through the chase, we are thinking that Payne has become a legitimate candidate for Mr. Basketball in Illinois if he continues to do what he has done for his team so far this season. In fact, it is quite reminiscient of what last year's winner, Kevin Dillard, did for his Homewood-Flossmoor team throughout the regular season.
Before anyone comes out and disagrees with us, it is important to remember that the winner of Mr. Basketball does not necessarily go to the player who is the best college prospect. A far more important criteria is what that player has done for his high school team, meaning that performance means much more than college potential when it comes to voting for the award. That is exactly why we believe that Payne has emerged as a most legitimate candidate.
Just as Dillard put H-F on his back last season and took an undefeated team into the state tournament, Payne has almost accomplished the same thing at Schaumburg this season, with Schaumburg's only loss coming to Warren in the championship game at Pontiac. However, it was Payne's two games at Pontiac prior to the matchup versus Warren that have us saying what we are now.
In a second round contest versus Peoria Manual, we thought that Payne was ordinary through the first three quarters. But then in the fourth quarter he came to life. From that point on all one had to do was look at the fire in his eyes to come away realizing that he simply wasn't going to allow his team to lose. Payne finished the game with 21 points, shot 6-15 from the field and had 8 assists in leading Schaumburg to a hard-fought 78-75 victory.
While we were impressed with how Payne responded down the stretch in the Peoria Manual game, that paled in comparison with his signature performance at Pontiac, which came against Plainfield North in the semifinals. In that game, Payne finished with 27 points including five three-point field goals in carrying Schaumburg to a 50-48 win. But forget the stats--it was the final play of the game that defines what Payne is all about.
With Schaumburg trailing by a point with 6.8 seconds left, head coach Bob Williams tried to design an inbounds play to get Payne the ball. Once Williams saw that Payne was bottled up, he did a masterful job of calling a timeout almost immediately and going back to the drawing board. There are now 6.3 seconds remaining. Payne received the ball on the inbounds pass and actually stepped back, rose up from NBA range (at least 25 feet) and drilled a 3-pointer just before the buzzer. Game over, and Schaumburg is on to the championship.
In a nutshell, Payne's game winner against Plainfield North personifies what he is all about. He is a fierce competitor who wills his team to win, makes all of his teammates better and consistently gets it done in crunch time situations. Not only that, but Payne plays with a level of confidence that is mind-boggling. He has no fear and is as mentally tough as they come. It is therefore no surprise that Payne played all 32 minutes in both the Peoria Manual and Plainfield North games.
As we indicated earlier, Payne's game has been scrutinized from day one, beginning with when he offered a verbal commitment to Jerry Wainwright and DePaul University before ever playing a high school game. From that point on, the level of expectations have become so high that many of them may be too lofty and unrealistic. Ironically, it is nowhere near the degree of pressure that Payne places upon himself, which again is illustrative of his huge competitive fire. Payne would ultimately end up changing his mind and as a result signed a letter of intent with Alabama this past fall. At the present time, the jury is still out in the minds of many people regarding whether or not Payne is a good fit for the SEC.
We are not going to specifically address Payne's level of ability as it pertains to college in this blog. There are some things we would still like to see him work on such as cutting down on his turnovers (he had five versus Manual and six versus Plainfield North). However, that is a mute point when one considers how he consistently responds when the game is on the line.
Simply put, Naperville Central's Drew Crawford, Loyola Academy's Matt Sullivan and Washington's Dyricus Simms-Edwards not withstanding, there is no player in the state who means more to the success of his team than Cully Payne, which we also thought was the case with Dillard and H-F last season. With that being said, we think that with Payne leading the way, there is a very good chance that Schaumburg could be playing in the Class 4A state finals in Peoria come March. We don't yet know how good of a college player Payne will be, but we do know that he is a very good high school player. Which is why when Mr. Basketball comes calling in the spring, Payne is a player who should receive the utmost consideration for the award.
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