Kaneland junior Tyler Heinle has spent the season playing the role of the other team's star shooter on the scout team.
In the Knights' biggest game of the year Friday night at Rochelle, Heinle played the role of Kaneland hero.
Heinle, with 8 points all season, scored 9 points in the second half of Kaneland's 74-67 victory that clinched the Northern Illinois Big 12 East championship by 1 game over the Hubs (18-11, 7-3). It's Kaneland's first conference title in 29 years since claiming the Litle Seven in 1982.
"I was surprised," Heinle said of coach Brian Johnson's decision to put him in late in the third quarter with several of the Knights' normal rotation players in foul trouble. "They left me open at the 3-point arc and I just made them. It's what I do in practice. The ball just came to me.
"I'm so excited right now I can't even put it into words," Heinle said while teammates took photos of him being interviewed and others chanted "Ty-ler Hein-le." Kaneland (17-8, 8-2) came from two games back of the Hubs in the standings with an 8-game winning streak it will take into next week's Class 3A Sycamore regional.
The atmosphere at Rochelle's state-of-the-art basketball gym was raucous all night. The Hubs were trying to send their coach Russ Zick out with a conference championship in his last home game of his 13-year Rochelle career.
But Heinle stole the show, scoring all 9 of his points on 3 straight 3-point baskets. The first one broke a 53-53 tie after the Hubs had erased Kaneland's 13-point lead. When the ball came to Heinle just to the right of the top of the key he didn't hesitate with his shot.
"That is who he is on the other team," said Kaneland senior Chaon Denlinger. "He's the guy when he's on the scout team, he's the guy that shoots on the other team. Today he got to be the guy who shoots on our team. He came off the bench and was ready to go."
Kaneland had grabbed leads of 24-16 after the first quarter and 41-32 at halftime with sizzling 15-of-27 shooting in the first half. Denlinger was especially hot hitting 4 of 5 3-pointers for 18 first-half points.
The Knights quickly found themselves in serious foul trouble in the third quarter, picking up 5 fouls in the first 1:51 of the third quarter. That included the third and fourth fouls on freshman Daniel Helm, who dominated while he was on the court with 20 points while playing about half the game.
Rochelle took advantage. When Joseph Torres nailed back-to-back 3s the Hubs were even at 53, though they lost a chance to take the lead by missing a pair of free throws.
After Heinle's first 3, Denlinger scored on a layup to close the third quarter ahead 58-54. Heinle opened the fourth quarter with his second 3, Denlinger scored again and the huge Kaneland crowd that traveled to Rochelle exploded when Heinle nailed his third 3 for a 66-56 lead with five minutes left.
"I don't know, I just saw him there and said 'Why not, let's go,'" Johnson said. "He hits a lot of shots all the time in JV games and practice. It's just other guys have been paying well and kind of been set in the rotation.
"But he shows up in the biggest game of the year and doesn't lack for any confidence. I drew up a play and said this one is for you, go knock it down. He knocked it down and then decided to hit a couple more too which we needed badly."
Rochelle made one last charge. The Knights contributed with 4 turnovers, and when sophomore Grant Prusator nailed a 3 and scored on a drive the Hubs finished an 11-2 run to pull within 68-67 with 50 seconds left.
Kaneland turned the ball giving the Hubs a chance for the win but sophomore Matt Rosenwinkel lost the ball out of bounds while trying to drive baseline. Prusator also missed a pair of free throws with 1:18 left and Rochelle down 66-65 that could have given the Hubs their first lead since 9-8. Rochelle was just 8 of 18 at the line.
"Once again missed free throws hurt us all game, hurt us early, hurt us late," said Zick, who has a 484-310 overall record. "I think they are a better team. They have proved that by these two wins. We were fighting from down the whole way. We had a chance to hit free throws to take the lead and that was the backbreaker was right there."
Zach Ringhouse, closing in on becoming Kaneland's all-time free throw percentage leader, made a pair with 15 seconds left. Prusator's 3 for the tie was well off the mark, and Ringhouse and Trever Heinle added 4 more free throws in the final 6.2 seconds.
Denlinger led Kaneland with 26 points. Four Hubs hit double figures paced by Prusator's 17 and Torres with 15.
"It's been 29 years," Denlinger said. "We thought last year's team would get it. We played so hard and we've come together so well. Everything just meshes. We played really well today."
The Knights completed their historical title by winning its last two games at Yorkville and Rochelle. They didn't lose on the road in conference.
"For them handle that pressure, they showed toughness and got it done," Johnson said.
The teams could meet a third time next Friday in the Sycamore regional championship game.