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Class 3A Northern Illinois University supersectional
St. Francis (22-7) vs. Limestone (23-9)
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, NIU Convocation Center, DeKalb.
Outlook: The format has changed and classes expanded, but this is St. Francis' first supersectional appearance since the Spartans' fourth-place state finish in 1989. It's Limestone's first after six regional titles, the last in 2006. "You don't take these things for granted," said St. Francis coach Bob Ward. "This is not life or death by any means, but this a special thing and I think they're fully aware of it."
The teams are similar in size, both topping out at about 6-foot-5, and both have caught fire in the playoffs. St. Francis has won four straight, Limestone six straight and 13 of 14. St. Francis was tied for second in the Suburban Christian Blue, Limestone tied for third in the Mid-Illini led by a Washington team then ranked No. 2 in Class 3A but beaten by Limestone at the East Peoria regional final. While St. Francis' equal opportunity offense has only senior guard Andrew Kimball averaging double figures at 11.2 behind 81 3-pointers, Limestone senior guard Hank Matthews -- son of Rockets second-year coach Eddie Mathews, himself named after the Hall of Fame third baseman -- and junior guard Terence Shelby score around 16 and 15 points a game, respectively. After that, the nine-deep Rockets get from 7-9 points a game from senior forward Kendall Davis, junior guard Lorenzo "Zo" Burns and center David Anderson. Limestone's transition and somewhat freelance/isolation half-court offense averages about 64 points a game, around 11 more than St. Francis, and allows opponents 56 a game to St. Francis' 46. "We're running and I guess we're allowing our opponents to run, too," said Eddie Matthews, the former nine-year Peoria Notre Dame coach, a right-handed pitcher in the Atlanta Braves system for seven years with a big-league roster spot in 1987.
Ward said St. Francis' 63-60 win over Rockford Lutheran at the Freeport sectional final was good preparation for Limestone. The Rockets attack the basket and shoot decently, which can stretch a man-to-man defense. St. Francis will offer Limestone the same problem. On the outside are mainly Kimball, who scored 23 points with six 3s against Rockford Lutheran, and Jason Sullivan, whose 19 3-pointers rank a distant second to Kimball. Point guard Tim Zettinger and swingman Jason Pisarski can also hit the 3, but theirs is more a midrange or slashing game with Zettinger, who scored 22 against Rockford Lutheran, in particular charged with driving and dishing. Typifying the Spartans' balance, Zettinger averages 9.3 points and Pisarski 8.8 with team highs of 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 steals, each going to the foul line a minimum of 115 times. Killian Brown comes off the bench banging to average 4.9 points in support of Kevin McShea and Matt Bonner, neither of whom can be neglected offensively. But as Eddie Matthews said, "If you're going to take away that shooter you've got to give up something."
Matthews, noting five student fan buses to DeKalb were filled in an hour Monday morning, is impressed with St. Francis' senior leadership and experience and poise. "It looks like they have a great swag about them right now," he said. Ward agrees about the "quietly confident" way his composed Spartans have dealt with opponents' scoring runs to win playoff squeakers such as 46-43 over Aurora Central Catholic and 63-60 over Rockford Lutheran. "We've had experience in finishing games," Ward said.
Ward said the keys to St. Francis' success are sound help-and-recover defense, taking care of the ball and rotating on defense then getting back to block out their man to rebound. "We have got to do that as well as we have ever done," Ward said.
Advancement: The winner plays the winner of the Joliet Central supersectional between Morgan Park (30-3) and Hillcrest (24-6) in the Class 3A semifinals at 12:15 p.m. Friday at the Peoria Civic Center.
-- Dave Oberhelman