It was a coaches' showcase and a defensive grinder, a Suburban Christian Conference Blue Division battle at the Class 3A IMSA regional final in Aurora.
In the end St. Francis had a tad more than Aurora Central Catholic. The Spartans won 46-43 Friday to claim their first back-to-back regional titles in school history.
"We just said that this is going to be a game where toughness is going to prevail. I thought our kids showed a lot of grit tonight," said St. Francis coach Bob Ward, whose No. 2 seeded Spartans (20-7) head to Wednesday's Freeport sectional semifinal against Sycamore (19-9), a 51-44 winner over Hampshire.
"It feels great," said Spartans point guard Tim Zettinger, clutching the regional plaque after a 9-point game. "We consider it a conference playoff because there were four teams from our conference in there. So we were really excited to come out on top, and it's just a great feeling."
No. 4 seed Aurora Central Catholic (16-13) was dealt a crushing blow to its own string of two consecutive regional titles when its leading scorer and rebounder, senior forward Phil Schuetz, fouled out with 6:26 left to play with a team-high 14 points. The fifth foul over a rebound battle was highly debatable, as was the first on a second-quarter charge taken by Zettinger.
"That was the longest six minutes of my life," Schuetz said. "It was tough. Everyone fought hard and we all played really well, but it was just tough sitting on the side. It was hard having to watch instead of being out there with them."
Committing just 6 turnovers on the night, St. Francis held ACC scoreless from 5:15 of the third quarter -- a Schuetz dunk -- until 4:50 of the fourth quarter. The Spartans went up 37-30 on a 3 by Andrew Kimball, scoring a team-high 12 points all on 3s.
Without Schuetz the Chargers still rallied to tie at 37 on two Sean Anger free throws, a Sean Harreld 3 and an Anger putback.
"When Phil fouled out somebody had to step up," said sixth-man Anger, who scored 8 points with 12 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
St. Francis answered with a 6-1 mini-run fueled by a Jason Pisarski steal and layup and Kevin McShea's putback with 1:06 remaining.
"I don't think we ever got the ball with a chance to take the lead. I think if we had we probably would have spread it out and tried to run out the clock," said Chargers coach Nathan Drye.
The rare St. Francis turnover, a Harreld steal, led to Anthony Andujar's layup to trim the Spartan lead to 40-43. McShea, who scored 10 points, made two free throws with 18.9 seconds left. Zettinger added another, making Harreld's 3 with 3.1 seconds for naught.
"This means a lot, this is really awesome," Pisarski said. "We're now the winningest team in two years for St. Francis, 40 wins, so it's pretty awesome."