Since the calendar still reads mid-January, there are plenty of big basketball games looming on the horizon.
There's the Illinois High School Association's "Original March Madness," featuring the girls and boys basketball tournaments, which actually begin in mid-February.
There are college conference tournaments, followed by "Selection Sunday" and "Bracketology," as well as the NCAA men's and women's tournaments that spread from March to early April.
Then there's the NBA Playoffs, which should include the Chicago Bulls' attempt at bringing the world championship back to the Windy City for the first time since 1998.
While there figures to be many highlight-reel plays, startling upsets, and buzzer-beating shots to come over the next few months, I'm certain that I have already seen the best basketball game of the year.
Final score: 53-33.
Yep, that's right. It's not a misprint.
The best basketball game of the year was decided by 20 points.
It took place last Thursday night at St. Charles East High School, and the game didn't even go on as planned.
The originally scheduled Illinois Special Olympics basketball game between St. Charles Community Unit School District 303 and District 203 was canceled due to the area's first major snowstorm of the winter.
"We were supposed to play District 203 -- a combination team of kids from Naperville North and Naperville Central but because of the weather they couldn't make it," said St. Charles co-coach Megan Buckman, who also is a special-education teacher (Life Skills) at St. Charles East.
Billed as the first home game in the 2-year history of the St. Charles team, it appeared that Mother Nature had other ideas.
After conferring with co-coach/special education teacher Dawn Clanton, St. Charles East girls varsity basketball assistant coach/special education teacher Sarah Seward, and others, an alternate plan was decided upon.
"We decided to still have the game so we asked the boys' varsity team to play," said Buckman. "That's how it came about. We were going to play no matter what -- rain, snow, whatever."
And so it began.
With the lights turned low, the music blaring and the crowd on its feet, the District 303 ISO team was introduced one-by-one by public address announcer Neil Currie.
The team includes Dan Tiltges, Jacob Winter, Mack Schweizer, Josh Raia, Damion Caston, Johnny Guckien, Daniel Walsh, Tony Sbarra, Tony Caston, Dylan Dunlap, Grant Sturgeon, Nikita Chavez, and Sam Raymond.
Schweizer and Sturgeon also are managers for the Saints' varsity basketball team.
With teachers Len Asquini and Max Payleitner serving as referees, and the Saints' cheerleaders and drill team on hand, it was show time.
At halftime, the scoreboard read District 303 ISO 23, STC East varsity 13.
While members of the Saints' girls basketball squad and other students held homemade signs cheering on the ISO team, the third quarter began with a District 303 surge.
With Saints 6-5 junior standout Kendall Stephens defending, Schweizer heard a roar of approval from the crowd after canning a 3-pointer to extend the District 303 team's lead to 31-15.
"I tried my best to lock him up but I couldn't," said Stephens, who received a loud chorus of boos every time he made a basket. "I guess they were a little upset about me scoring."
After Sturgeon's fadeaway jumper kept the double-figure lead intact for District 303 at 33-22, the Saints fought back.
A few moments after hearing the chant, "Overrated, Overrated," from the student-section, Stephens answered with a 1-hand dunk as senior guard-turned-coach Charlie Fisher's Saints team trimmed the deficit to 33-26.
District 303 responded with back-to-back baskets by Sbarra to extend its margin to 37-28 after 3 quarters.
In the fourth quarter, Guckien's 3-pointer and an inside bucket by Tiltges (who soon after received the "he's a freshman" chant from the fans) enabled District 303 to pull away for the victory as the fans serenaded the Saints with the 4 words road teams dread hearing -- "warm up the bus."
As the final buzzer sounded, members of the Saints' girls basketball team charged onto the court to celebrate with the jubilant District 303 ISO players.
"The kids had a blast -- it was great," said Buckman. "They look forward to this. We had the locker decorations and the classroom decorations so they were more than excited to play. With this being our only home game, it was more than the typical game."
There was no losing team on this memorable night.
"They're always there for us when we play so it's nice to give back and have they be the players," said Stephens. "It was nice to play against Mack, Grant and all the players."
This was truly a win-win situation for all involved.
"This was great to see how many people came out to support them with this weather," said Asquini. "It was great to give them a home game and then see the community come out and the student body support them. That's really important."
For the record, Tony Caston and Sbarra led the District 303 team in scoring with 18 and 16 points, respectively, while Damion Caston added 6 points.
But those statistics mattered little compared to the genuine looks of excitement etched on the faces of players from both teams during the customary handshake line following the game.
"It was fun to watch," said Buckman, "and we couldn't do anything without our parents.
"The (STC) East community and St. Charles community is phenomenal to us," added Buckman. "They support us 100 percent and are so great for our kids and everything. It's awesome."
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org
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