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With the game hanging in the balance, St. Charles North senior point guard Tony Neari stepped up and hit some crucial shots Friday night.
Neari, who scored 7 of his team-high 15 points in the fourth quarter, sank a pair of free throws with 10.4 seconds remaining to help the North Stars (3-0) secure a hard-fought, 53-48 victory over Downers Grove South (1-2) in the 54th annual Ron Johnson Thanksgiving Tournament at St. Charles East.
With the win, the North Stars advance to tonight's championship game (against cross-town rival St. Charles East) for the first time in 6 tournament visits.
It also gives Neari an opportunity to flaunt some family swagger.
"Finally, it feels good," said Neari, a 3-year varsity starter. "I finally get to brag to my brother (Nick) about it."
"It's a great feeling," North Stars coach Tom Poulin said of reaching the finals. "I was reading a story today that mentioned something about St. Charles having not made the finals since the '70s. I'm pretty sure that when I was a senior in 1991, we lost to Waubonsie Valley in the finals.
"I do know this -- St. Charles North hasn't sniffed a championship here. We won the consolation championship with Nick (Neari) and Jon (DeMoss) in 2009 and we were proud of that. And that was a good team we had back then."
Downers Grove South jumped out to a 19-12 first-quarter lead by hitting 8 of its first 12 shots, including 3-of-4 from beyond the 3-point arc. Jordan Cannon, who came off the bench to lead the Mustangs with 15 points, and teammates Danny Spinuzza and Scott McNellis had 5 points apiece in the opening period.
The North Stars trailed by 9 points late in the second quarter before scoring the final 5 points -- 2 coming on a reverse layup by Justin Stanko (10 points, 10 rebounds) with the other points coming on Neari's buzzer-beating 3-pointer -- to make it 26-22 at halftime.
"We felt defensively in the second quarter that we fixed our mistakes from the first quarter," said Poulin.
St. Charles North scored 10 unanswered points during an eventual 17-9 third-quarter run that included 3-pointers by Alec Goetz (8 points) and Quinten Payne (13 points) to take a 39-35 lead.
The Mustangs drew even at 42-42 on a pair of free throws from Robert Mara (6 points, 10 rebounds) with 2:30 left before Goetz drained a cold-blooded 3-pointer on the North Stars' next possession to put St. Charles North on top for good.
Neari's 4 free throws over the final 39 seconds sealed the victory.
"We took what the defense gave us," said Neari. "They did a good job denying our main shooter, Goetz, so someone else had to step up."
"Tony was confident from start to finish," Poulin said of Neari, who added 6 assists. "He didn't second-guess himself. He took the reins and he led us. That's what a senior point guard is supposed to do."
Downers Grove South will face St. Joseph in tonight's third-place contest.
"I thought we guarded them well but we need to work on our offense," said Mustangs coach Jay Baum. "They made the plays when they needed to."
Rock Island tourney: At the Rock Island Thanksgiving Classic, West Aurora met with decidedly mixed results.
The Blackhawks dropped a heartwrenching 65-62 verdict to the host Rocks in the waning seconds after earlier defeating highly regarded Public League power Bowen 63-49 in afternoon play.
Jontrel Walker scored a career-high 29 points against Rock Island; the junior guard, along with sophomore Roland Griffin, scored 13 points apiece in the win over Bowen.
Josh McAuley added 12 over the Bengals, while Jayquan Lee had 10 to become the fourth West Aurora product in double figures against Bowen.
-- Kevin McGavin