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Carmel Catholic's basketball boys keep raising the bar, and their fans might raise Cullen Barr if he and his teammates can pull off a third straight postseason upset tonight.
But as the chaos commenced on Antioch's court, after the Corsairs stunned second-seeded Lakes 46-42 in the teams' Class 3A sectional semifinal Thursday night, Barr sought out his old AAU teammate.
Eagles senior veteran Jake Kohler sat dejectedly near the foul line, head down, game ball between his legs. Barr walked over to his friend, consoled him and extended a hand. Carmel center Jack George did likewise. Never mind that both Barr and George had already done their share of muscle work by lifting their team to victory.
The 6-foot-6 Barr scored a game-high 18 points and grabbed 7 rebounds, while the 6-9 George posted a double-double of 14 points and 13 boards.
"He's a heck of a competitor, and I really enjoy playing against him," Barr said of Kohler, who he's known since they were sixth-graders playing for Kessel Heat. "He played a great game."
Carmel (15-13) played better than Lakes (24-7), which had won 11 straight.
"They slow you down. They play really good defense. They pack the paint," said senior guard Andrew Spencer, who led Lakes with 15 points, including three 3-pointers. "They made it hard for us to get the ball into our big men, where we're strong. We didn't make our shots. We didn't make our free throws. The ball didn't bounce our way."
As a result, the sixth-seeded Carmel Cinderellas get to face No. 1 North Chicago, the defending Class 3A state runner-up, in today's 7:30 p.m. sectional final. Carmel, which knocked off third-seeded Ridgewood on its home court in the regional final, will be seeking its first sectional championship since 1986 under coach Frank Belmont.
"We knew coming into the postseason that our record really wasn't telling us how good of a team we are," George said. "We knew we would have a good chance to beat all of these teams. I think this is probably the best win for our program ever. (Against North Chicago), we're just going to come in with the same mentality and hopefully win again."
While Lakes had been hot, Carmel had been playing exceptional ball as well. The Corsairs, who led the entire fourth quarter, have won seven of their last eight and boast their first four-game winning streak of the season.
"Sometime about a month ago, it started clicking — our offense, our defense and the effort," said coach Tim Bowen, whose Corsairs avenged its regional-final loss to the Eagles last season and a 46-40 defeat on Jan. 29.
"We're really clicking at the right time, and it's awesome," said Barr, as Carmel crazies chanted 'Cull-en Barr, Cull-en Barr' behind him. "We're playing well as a group. I'm really proud of the squad. We've really bought into what Coach Bowen has been saying. We've just been putting it all together and just playing fantastic."
A pair of free throws by point guard Nickai Poyser (6 points) had Carmel up 31-29 after three quarters. But a stop-and-go fourth saw the two teams combine to shoot 28 free throws, and neither squad was that successful. Carmel won despite going 9 of 20 from the line in the fourth. Lakes shot 3 of 8 from the line and 4 of 17 from the floor.
"Things just didn't fall our way," said Kohler, who had 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. "We weren't hitting anything. But we have to give credit to (Carmel). They came out and played us tough."
Carmel built its lead to 44-36 on Barr's free throw with 1:14 left. But Lakes got a 3-pointer from Spencer with 51 seconds to go and a 3 from Kohler — over the long-armed George — with 25 seconds on the clock to make it a two-point game. One more free throw by Barr helped Carmel stave off its opponent.
Lakes dismissed the notion that it was looking past Carmel. The Eagles earned a share of the North Suburban Prairie Division title with North Chicago. The conference rivals faced each other three times during the regular season, with North Chicago winning the first two meetings.
Justin Bergeron had 11 rebounds for the Eagles.
"We didn't game-plan for North Chicago all week," Spencer said. "We game-planned for Carmel. They beat us. They outplayed us. They out-hustled us. Credit to them."
Credit Carmel freshman Chris Duff. With Cullen's kid brother Michael in foul trouble most of the night, Duff came off the bench and contributed 7 points and 5 rebounds, including 4 on the offensive glass.
"He had a great night against Ridgewood (too)," Bowen said. "Thank goodness. That's two (games) in a row he's put in some good time for us to help us out. ... We're excited about him."
Carmel had a lot of things to be excited about Thursday night.