Larkin starters Quentin Ruff, Quantice Hunter, Kendale McCullum and Drew Jones made the slow, triumphant walk up the basketball court, trailing fellow starter Brayden Royse as he headed to the free throw line with 16 seconds left in the 38th Annual Elgin Holiday Tournament Saturday night, each flashing a wider smile than the last.
With the title securely in hand after 4 victories in four days, the excited, exhausted Royals finally let their guard down and encouraged their fans to raise the Chesbrough Field House roof in celebration of Larkin's 60-51 victory over rival Elgin, the defending tournament champion.
The victory was the ninth in a row for the streaking Royals (14-2), who won the Elgin Tournament for the first time in school history.
"We tell each class to leave the program in better position than when they found it," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. "This group has put the program someplace it's never been, and that's special for us, for sure. We're proud as can be."
The victory over Elgin (9-7) was Larkin's second in a 17-day span, reversing a trend of 8 straight Elgin victories in the 121-game series, which the Maroons still lead 79-42.
"It feels great after two years of losing to them all the time," said Hunter, named to the Elgin all-tournament team for the second straight year. "We came back and showed them in my senior year that Larkin is always going to fight. They won it last year, and we definitely didn't want them to win it again."
Larkin was the aggressor from the opening tip. The Royals harassed the Maroons into 8 first-quarter turnovers, precipitating a 14-3 run that translated to a 19-9 lead after eight minutes. Ruff scored 8 of his team-high 21 points in the opening period, including 2 fast-break layups off turnovers.
"We were just trying to keep the ball out of (point guard Arie) Williams' hands and make his teammates make plays that they're not used to making," Ruff said of Larkin's defensive game plan.
"I feel like we turned the ball over ourselves when there really wasn't any pressure," said Williams, a repeat all-tournament pick who scored 28 points. "We turned it over sometimes off the hands, missing passes. It was sloppy in the first half. That's the reason we got behind and couldn't come back."
Elgin turned the ball over only 7 times the rest of the game and won the rebounding battle 36-32, but Larkin did not blink. The Royals led 33-26 at halftime and 47-38 after three quarters. Elgin's best push came during an 8-2 fourth-quarter run that trimmed the deficit to 53-48 with 2:34 to play.
That was as close as Elgin would get. The Royals protected their lead by spreading the floor in the final few minutes and forcing the Maroons to foul. Larkin subsequently made 8 of 10 free throws in the final three minutes to win the championship.
Though Williams scored 28 points, the Royals made him earn them on 7-of-20 shooting from the field and an 11-of-14 performance from the free-throw line. Williams was supported by senior forward Eric Sedlack (14 points, 13 rebounds), but junior Isaiah Butler, who scored 19 points in Friday's semifinal victory over Centennial, was held to 2 points on 1-of-6 shooting.
"Our execution was just off in every single thing we did," Elgin coach Mike Sitter said. "Every pass was a little bit behind, every cut was a little bit slower, delayed. We just didn't have the same intensity we had when we played at their place and I don't know why that is. We tried different combinations, different players. We just didn't match their execution or their intensity level."
The victory caps a tremendous first half of the season for the Royals, who also won the Woodstock Hoops for Healing Thanksgiving Tournament and went 2-0 at a shootout in Missouri.
"We just wanted to bring Larkin basketball back and be the first group to win the tournament here at Elgin, and it feels great," said McCullum, a junior who was named all-tournament after finishing with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals against the Maroons. "But we haven't achieved what we want yet. We want to get plaques on the wall for regionals, for sectionals. We want to do something special for Larkin."