It seemed Naperville Central's magical control of the court at the Wildcat Hardwood Classic might be in jeopardy Thursday night.
The Redhawks were foundering around out on the court, knotted at 8-8 after one with a Deerfield team that had flustered them out of their up-tempo rhythm. The Warriors, with an upset of Prospect already notched in this tournament at Wheeling, appeared ready to topple the defending champs too, especially when 6-foot-9 center Nick Czarnowski went to the bench in foul trouble.
Not to worry, Naperville.
The Redhawks fell back on their trademark, turnover-driven defense and turned those Warrior miscues into opportunity baskets en route to a 65-46 quarterfinal victory and a spot in Friday's 8:45 p.m. semifinal against Notre Dame, a 63-44 winner over Carmel.
"We didn't start the game very well, shooting-wise," said Naperville Central coach Pete Kramer, whose club won a sixth straight on this court in tournament competition. "We did a nice job in the last 4-5 minutes of the first half."
They did more than a nice job. Trailing 11-10 after Deerfield sharpshooter Eric Porter (19 points) hit the first of his 5 3-pointers, the Redhawks seized control and finished the half on an 18-4 run. Matt Auld and Matthew Bennett hit the ground running off the Redhawks bench and combined to neatly finish a fastbreak. Two possessions later, Auld added 2 free throws off a drive.
The energetic Nicky Lopez surrounded all that with a steal for 2 free throws and a 3-pointer on the way to his team-high 16. Point guard Ryan Antony converted a putback and added a jumper off a steal and Rob Suntken closed the run with a hoop on a nice feed from Patrick Maloney. That gave Central (8-3) a 28-15 halftime lead that would never go under double-digits again.
But it was defense that keyed the run, especially without Czarnowski's big body in the middle to block and alter shots.
"The pace, with or without Czarnowski, is the same," Lopez said of staying uptempo. "We just dug deep. He's a big presence."
Kramer said Czarnowski's absence due to injury in summer ball actually ended up helping the Redhawks.
"We learned to play without him," said Kramer.
It helps to have 6-foot-5 Maloney, 6-3 Mike Blaszczyk and 6-4 Auld in the rotation to enable a still-formidable frontline that forged a 28-18 team rebounding advantage.
The momentum established, Naperville carried it throughout the second half and Lopez's long-range bombing coupled with everone else's defensive focus enabled the Redhawks to extend the lead even further. It was 46-28 after three.
"We picked up the intensity," said Kramer, whose went smaller in lineup but broader in defensive impact with a full-court press that kept a slick-shooting Deerfield team reeling.
"I love to press," said Lopez. "We picked it up defensively in the second quarter."
Deerfield, which shot lights out to upset Prospect, was just 14-of-38 from the floor against Naperville Central, although Porter's hot hand enabled them to go 7-of-16 beyond the arc.
But the Redhawks were spreading out the scoring. Lopez, Antony, Blaszczyk, Czarnowski, Suntken and Auld all had fourth-quarter baskets in maintaining the lead.
"We are balanced," said Kramer. "We've got give kids who can the shoot the ball."