Aurora Christian reached the semifinals of the 50th annual Plano Christmas Classic with a 56-46 victory over Hinckley-Big Rock Thursday, and the Eagles did it as the No. 13 seed in the 24-team tournament.
That's a misleading number according to the coach of the No. 5-seeded Royals, who grabbed a 14-9 lead after the first quarter, then watched the Eagles go on a 13-0 run late in the second quarter and never trail again.
"I think the seeding is not true to how they can play," Hinckley-Big Rock coach Bill Sambrookes said. "They are coming off a football season where those kids were playing football when other kids were playing in a Thanksgiving tournament. It puts everybody behind.
"Yeah, they are great athletes and you can say they are in condition, but they still are not in basketball shape. And they are getting in basketball shape and I think they are going to have a nice season. Playing them to a 10-point game might turn out to be something we should be proud of."
The Eagles (8-4) certainly are playing better of late, winners of five straight now back to a 53-42 loss to Aurora Central Catholic. They will meet No. 1 seed and defending tournament champion Belvidere North in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday.
Aurora Christian won Thursday hitting 40.5 percent of its shots from the field (17 for 42), 37.5 percent on 3-pointers (6 for 16) and 72.7 at the line (16 for 22) -- all ranging between not bad and good unless you compare it to the Eagles' previous game, a 94-83 win Wednesday over Mendota.
"I've never been in a game like that," Eagles senior Haydn McNelis said. "That was crazy. That was fun."
Maybe not quite as fun for Eagles coach Pat McNamara who joked that his team and Mendota "set man-to-man basketball back 20 years" defensively.
Needless to say he was much more pleased Thursday. Johnathan Harrell and Ryan Suttle were particularly effective holding the Royals' top two scorers Bernie Conley and Jared Madden to 7 and 5 points, respectively.
Transitioning from a zone the past few years to a man-to-man is starting to pay off.
"I thought our defense, our guys just concentrated a little bit more," McNamara said. "It's nice to have your defense create some offense. That was a big difference for us."
McNelis came off the bench to help turn the tide. He had 3 steals that led to fast breaks. Harrell and Windle both dunked in transition off steals.
McNelis also made three 3-pointers including one from the corner that beat the second-quarter buzzer and put the Eagles up 29-20 at halftime, capping a 16-2 run.
"It's (the man-to-man) a little different because we've been playing it (zone) the last three years," McNelis said. "I think it's a good change. We're athletic, we can get people up and down the court the whole game. We're pretty deep too. We've got athleticism on our side."
The Royals (9-3), who didn't attempt a free throw in the game to the Eagles' 22, trailed 45-34 early in the fourth quarter before getting within 50-44 on a Zack Michels lay-in with 1:35 left. Ryan Suttle made 5 of 7 free throws to keep the Royals at bay.
Michels and Michael Bayler both scored 16 points to lead the Royals while Windle (15 points, 9 rebounds), Ryan McQuade (11 points, 8 rebounds), McNelis (11 points) and Suttle (10 points) paced the balanced Eagles.
"It is what it is. I thought he game was called well," Sambrookes said of not getting to the line. "We just dug ourselves too much of a hole. We have to give Aurora Christian credit for what they did. They played great defense, they shut down Bernie and Jared. They have some great athletes."
Belvidere North, who beat Morris by the same 56-46 score Aurora Christian won by, has all but one player back from last year's title team.
"It will be nice to see how we do against Belvidere," McNamara said. "They have an excellent team."