There was a point early in Thursday's Metea Valley-Evanston contest at the DeKalb Chuck Dayton Holiday Tournament when it appeared the Mustangs risked being run off the court by the bigger and quicker Wildkits.
But that never happened. Though it never led, Metea Valley came back and played a gritty game after falling behind 7-0 in the first two minutes of play. Evanston won 58-51, but the Mustangs never went away in the tournament semifinal.
"There's that chance where we could have put our heads down and felt sorry for ourselves," Metea Valley coach Bob Vozza said. "But the response was there. I think once we realized we could run stuff, execute and get good shots, guys settled down a little bit."
The tournament takes a break through Christmas weekend and concludes on Monday. Metea Valley (8-6) plays Hinsdale South in the 7 p.m. third-place game.
"We thought it was a big opportunity and a big step for us to be playing a school like Evanston in a big game like this," Metea Valley junior Benny Obendorf said. "We were hoping to take a big step for the program and win a game like this. Unfortunately we came up a little short. But we're glad to have the opportunity."
Time and again in the contest, Evanston (11-3) opened the margin, pehaps to 6 or 8 points and the Mustangs came straight back. Evanston's largest lead was a short-lived 11 points early in the second half. Four times in the second half Metea Valley trimmed that advantage to 4 points, though without ever moving the game into a one-possession situation.
"We picked up our energy really nicely," Obendorf said. "We picked up loose balls and got more rebounds and played better defense. We just couldn't get that last shot or stop to get us tied or into the lead."
But that early margin proved important. Evanston jumped to that 7-0 lead before Metea Valley got fully into the contest. By halftime, despite recovering, the Mustangs still trailed 32-23. An early run in the second half, culminating in a Lashawn Cargo basket, cut the lead to 40-34.
"I'm happy with the response," Vozza said. "We talked at halftime about taking that extra effort of toughness -- getting to loose balls -- and challenging them to reach that next level that I think is in them."
Obendorf came alive in the second half and keyed the Mustangs' surge. After not scoring in the first half, Obendorf scored 9 points in the third quarter and finished with a team-high 14 points. The junior scored exactly half his team's second-half points.
"I was just more aggressive and settled down, knowing the better shots to take," Obendorf said.
Evanston's 6-8 forward James Farr led all scorers with 19.