Two Saints made their first varsity starts Friday night, and both responded with several key plays during St. Charles East's second-half surge to hand Geneva its first loss of the season in convincing fashion, 55-39.
Sophomore point guard Cole Gentry scored 8 points and was part of constant full court, trapping pressure that forced 20 Geneva turnovers including 8 in a game-deciding 15-3 third-quarter run. Gentry also pocketed 3 of the Saints' 14 steals.
Junior forward AJ Washington added 7 points. He threw down a one-hand slam after a steal and pass ahead from Kendall Stephens that gave the Saints the lead for good at 31-30.
Washington then provided quite an exclamation point to end the 15-3 run when he soared high to grab an alley-oop pass that Dom Adduci lofted from just inside half court. His two-hand jam put the Saints up 44-33 and sent the student section into a frenzy.
"Me and Dom before every game always say we want to get an oop," Washington said. "I just had the faith he would throw it. I knew I was coming off a bad first half so I wanted to get the energy and momentum going for the rest of the game."
St. Charles East (5-1, 1-1) led 26-24 at halftime. After building a 44-36 advantage through three quarters, the Saints held Geneva (7-1, 1-1) to 3 points and 1-of-8 shooting from the field in the fourth, looking much more like the team that started the year winning their own Thanksgiving tournament and not the one upset by Larkin in their last home game.
"We knew we had to give our student section one back because they were out here against Larkin and we didn't play good," Gentry said. "Geneva is our rival so it just added that much more intensity to the game. We just played great together."
Adduci led a balanced Saints attack with 14 points. Stephens came off the bench after missing practice this week with an illness and scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half -- a sign the Saints can win games even without their Purdue-bound senior carrying them.
"I thought tonight made us better in the fact we are still working on ways to get him open," Saints coach Patrick Woods said. "Credit their defense, they played hard. We want him to get as many touches as we can obviously but at the same token I thought it was great we had so many players step up and knock down shots. The more we can do that the better we're going to get."
Connor Chapman and Nate Navigato did most of the damage for Geneva. Chapman had 14 points and 10 rebounds while Navigato scored 12 and grabbed 8 rebounds.
Nate Brown chipped in 7 points and played aggressive defense when it was his turn to chase Stephens, but other than those three only two other Vikings scored combining for just 6 points.
"St. Charles East has done us a great favor," Geneva coach Phil Ralston said. "They have exposed where we need to improve. At this point of the season that's great. I thank Coach Woods for it. He has given us a valuable lesson to learn from."
The Vikings rallied from an early 9-2 deficit to tie the game 9-9 after one quarter, Navigato and Chapman scoring all 9 of their first-quarter points.
The Saints picked up the pace in the second quarter with their trapping full-court man pressure, a different look than their 1-3-1.
"We have different rotations and try to mix it up, keep them on their toes so they don't know where it (the trap) is coming from," Woods said.
"We kind of pride ourselves on our defense. We knew Geneva was 7-0 coming in and we knew it was going to be a tough, physical game and it pretty much played out exactly how we thought as far as the physicality and the defense."
Ralston certainly was not pleased with how the Vikings handled the pressure, committing 12 more turnovers than the Saints did to offset Geneva's 31-23 rebounding advantage.
The Saints also shot their free throws much better at 15 of 21 to Geneva's 8 of 16.
"We did not handle the ball well, we did not pass the ball well, we did not meet the pass well, we had balls that were knocked out of our hands because we were not strong with the ball," Ralston said.
"In all those phases we did a very poor job tonight, and yet despite that up until it got away from us in the end of the third, beginning of the fourth we were still in the game. That's the amazing part."
One reason the Vikings stayed close was Chapman's play inside. Several times the 6-foot-5 senior got the ball on a block and made a spin move to find himself with a great look right in front of the rim, often drawing contact to get to the free-throw line 8 times.
"That's (footwork) something he's worked on in the offseason," Ralston said. "Been a point of emphasis for him. For a big guy he's actually pretty nimble on his feet. We told him this season he needs to have a more commanding presence. Got to get his shooting percentage a little higher, got to get him to finish a little better."
The Saints ended up just below 50 percent from the field at 17 of 36.
The newcomers to the starting lineup -- Gentry and Washington -- did their part with their combined 15 points and aggressive defense.
"It (starting) was crazy, it's a whole different game, the crowd is into it right from the beginning, your name is up there already, it's a great feeling," said Gentry, an AAU teammate on the Mercury Elite with Geneva's Navigato.
"I just wanted to play my role, find my shooters, score when I needed to," Gentry said. "Coach stressed when your number is called be ready. I wanted to bring energy, pressure their guards, get some assists, get the team going.