Junior 6-foot-7 forward Amanze Egekeze says his surgically repaired knee loosens up as games progress, the timing of which worked out well for Huntley in Wednesday's 59-53 victory at Crystal Lake South.
Egekeze blocked 4 shots, all in the second half, highlighted by his denial of a driving layup attempt by CL South leading scorer Austin Rogers with 22 seconds left.
Rogers' shot could have trimmed Huntley's lead to 2 points. Instead, Egekeze swatted it from behind, grabbed the rebound, drew a foul and sank both super-bonus free throws to provide the final margin of victory in Huntley's 29th straight victory against a Fox Valley Conference Valley Division opponent.
"I'm not jumping as high as I can. Sometimes it takes me awhile," said Egekeze, who debuted in early January after undergoing September surgery to address patellar tendinitis. "In the second half I got a lot more blocks because I was warmed up. In the first half I'm a little slow off the ground. I have to get quicker with that. It's footwork stuff, but I feel like I'm getting a lot better."
Huntley coach Marty Manning called it one of his team's "worst defensive games of the year for a lot of different reasons." He said part of the credit for that goes to CL South (7-13, 2-6), which overcame an early 12-point deficit to tie the game on three occasions in the third quarter.
"Usually, defensively, we like to be the team that dictates what other teams are going to get," Manning said. "Part of that was Amanze not blocking as many shots in the first half. Then in the second half -- especially the fourth quarter -- he got 3 or 4 blocks that changed the momentum of the game. He didn't give them any easy layups."
Egekeze's wasn't the only big defensive play down the stretch. Huntley led 52-48 with 1:14 to play when junior Zach Gorney drew a player control foul against CL South guard Nick Geske. It was the 13th time this season Gorney has drawn a charge. No other Red Raider has drawn more than 2.
"It was good to change the momentum a little bit because they were getting baskets like that all day long," said Gorney, who finished with 8 points and 4 rebounds. "I think we had a problem closing out in the first half and the third quarter."
Egekeze led Huntley (15-6, 9-0) with 16 points, including a 9-of-12 showing at the free-throw line, and senior Bryce Only added 11 points and 7 rebounds before he fouled out with 1:02 left. Senior guard Tommy Regan scored 10 points, including a driving layup at the end of the third quarter that put Huntley ahead to stay.
Gorney opened the fourth quarter with a turnaround jump shot and Blake Jacobs subsequently split 2 free throws for a 44-39 lead. However, Huntley didn't breathe easy until Egekeze's late block against Rogers, who led all scorers with 23 points. Geske supported him with 19 points for the Gators.
"We kept competing," CL South coach Matt LePage said. "You have to like the fight. It's just getting over that hump there late in the third, early fourth when you're right there with them. You have to make big shots right there and I just felt we didn't make enough.
"Their complementary players made big shots. That was the big difference. And their big guy made a couple of big blocks in the last two minutes. It's hard for some of our players to recognize him when you don't play against a good shot blocker like him."