MARENGO -- Celebratory photo opportunities have been rare for the Wauconda boys basketball team.
But the Bulldogs are determined to change the way people picture their program in Lake County. That determination was evident Saturday night when they faced Sycamore in the championship game of the 63rd annual E.C. Nichols Tournament.
And answering every challenge gave Wauconda players and coaches the chance to joyfully pose for plenty of photos with the title plaque after a gritty 53-48 victory at Homer "Bill" Barry Gymnasium.
"My mom just showed me the other night in the program that the last time we won this tournament was 1978," said Wauconda senior Austin Swenson. "I was just shocked."
Ending a 34-year title drought shouldn't be shocking since Wauconda (9-6) has now won eight of its last nine games. Especially since it wasn't fazed by another close game under championship pressure as it avenged a 2-point tourney loss last week to Sycamore (9-5) in pool play.
Kodey Thomas scored 12 of his game-high 17 points in the second half, Swenson had 15 points and hit three 3-pointers and Keith Blomberg, Devon King and Dion Head all made critical late-game plays for the Bulldogs.
"Everybody on our team knows how to play together," Thomas said after hitting 7 of 10 shots from the field.
"We're very unselfish," said Blomberg, whose 7 points included 2 free throws in a bonus situation for a 51-45 lead with 9.5 seconds left. "We don't care about points, we care about the 'W' at the end of the game."
A pair of 3s by Thomas to start the second half capped an 11-point run that put Wauconda ahead 30-24. But Sycamore never let the lead get larger and was poised to repeat last week's comeback when Mark Skelley (13 points) hit a running 12 footer for a 44-43 lead with 3:58 left.
Wauconda didn't panic even after a missed shot gave Sycamore a chance to extend the lead.
"We've played games like this all year long," said Wauconda coach Scott Luetschwager.
"It plays to our advantage because we've been in it a couple of times," Blomberg said. "We're not afraid to play close games."
Head's steal led to his go-ahead baseline drive at 2:51 and a missed 1-and-1 set up Thomas' drive through traffic to make it 47-44 at 2:13. After Sycamore's Scott Nelson split 2 free throws, Head missed a drive but King was there for the rebound basket and 49-45 lead at 1:32.
Then, after King missed a 1-and-1 at 1:07, he dug in with Swenson, Blomberg, Head and Thomas on defense to force Sycamore to burn more than 45 seconds before it missed a shot and then committed a turnover.
"We all kept our confidence high and trusted one another," Swenson said.
After Blomberg's free throws, Jake Winters' hit a 3 with 2.2 seconds left and Sycamore called time. But Head started the long-awaited celebration by hitting both free throws in a bonus situation with five-10ths of a second to play.
"We all play as one and we all know at the end of the day the victory is what matters," Thomas said.
"This meant a lot to the guys," Luetschwager said. "We've gone through some lean years, so we can enjoy this."