It was a tale of one city, but a tale of two halves when Marmion Academy visited the steaming hot gymnasium at Aurora Central Catholic on Friday night for a Suburban Christian Blue clash.
Aurora Central's dominate half -- the first -- was enough to outlast Marmion's colossal second half to secure a 63-60 victory after guard Shawn Soris knocked down 5 of 6 free throws in the final minute for the Chargers.
It was hard to imagine anyone could be categorized as calm and cool in this frenzied conference battle in Central's sauna bath. But Soris fit that bill in knocking down his charity tosses after Marmion had finally overcome a 23-point ACC second-half lead to pull ahead 59-58 with 1:16 left on an Alex Theisen (11 points) steal and layup.
"It felt good because it was the second time this week I have been put in a clutch situation at the line," Soris said of his key free throws. "We played Joliet Catholic on Tuesday and I missed a free throw in the fourth quarter with under a minute left, and I just learned from it."
Soris shared team-high scoring honors with Mike O'Donnell at 12 points each, but it was O'Donnell's block of a baseline drive by Marmion's Tyler Maryanski that triggered the Chargers' Houdini escape act.
After the block, Soris was fouled in a loose-ball scramble, and made two free throws to put ACC up 60-59 with 58 seconds left. After Marmion's Jordan Glasgow (game-high 19 points) missed a jump shot, Soris nabbed the rebound and was fouled. This time, he made one of two free shots for a 61-59 lead.
After Theisen made one of two free throws at the 31-second mark, Soris was fouled again with 15 seconds left and made both free throws.
Marmion (5-12, 1-3) couldn't get a 3-point shot off in the final seconds, resulting in a mob scene of ecstatic ACC fans.
"After what I just witnessed (letting a big lead slip away), I am still going to be happy because we won by 3 and it goes in the record book as a win," said a relieved ACC coach Nathan Drye.
"Marmion always plays hard, and it was a situation where all of the pressure rotates from them to us, because once they make a couple baskets and chip away, it's like you don't want to be the team that blew a 20-point lead," Drye said.
A Marmion comeback seemed improbable when the Chargers started to pull away in the second quarter. ACC closed out the half with a 20-4 run and enjoyed a 43-24 halftime lead, as Phil Schuetz (11 points, game-high 12 rebounds) and O'Donnell each had 9 points.
At the 6:30 mark of the third quarter, ACC enjoyed a 47-24 lead, but Marmion got fired up after center Matt Smith fouled out and was hit with a technical foul. It was as if someone reminded the Cadets that Aurora Central was just a .500 team, not a well-oiled, undefeated juggernaut that would administer such a beatdown.
The Cadets then fought back with six unanswered close-range baskets, though the Chargers still enjoyed a 51-41 lead entering the final quarter.
With about 2:30 left in the game, Theisen stole a pass near midcourt and raced in for a layup to trim ACC's lead to 58-54. The Cadets immediately stole the inbounds pass and set up Mike Sheehan (12 points) for a 3-point bomb. About 15 seconds later, Theisen duplicated his midcourt steal and made his layup for Marmion's first lead since the opening seconds of the second quarter.
"I'd have to watch the tape to figure out what happened," Drye said.
"I would agree that the technical fired them up a little bit, and something like that can swing the momentum in the game."
The other momentum swinger was O'Donnell, who added 10 rebounds to his stat line, and made a crucial three-point play in the fourth quarter when Marmion was trying to orchestrate its comeback.
"It gets easier for me when they scout our team and they worry about athletic guys like Phil (Schuetz) on the offensive glass," O'Donnell said. "It opens it up for me when they worry about the other athletic guys on the team."
ACC (8-7, 4-1) enjoyed a 40-29 rebounding edge, but the turnovers illustrated how each team controlled the action during a half. Marmion committed 18 of its 22 turnovers in the first half, while ACC had 20 of its 29 in the second half.
ACC's edge at the free-throw line proved critical as the Chargers made 18 of 25, while Marmion sank only 10 of 21.
If Aurora Central's escape in the game was impressive, so too was Marmion's escape from the gym after the game. The Cadets left quickly and were nowhere to be found by reporters, or some of their fans milling around after the contest.