St. Charles East's wild 61-57 victory at Geneva Friday night had just about everything except for a buzzer-beater -- an opportunity taken away from the Vikings when Nate Navigato was called for an offensive foul and his team behind by 2 points with 3.3 seconds remaining.
It was an unusual ending to a hotly contested game, one that featured huge momentum changes, a near-perfect first half from St. Charles East, technical fouls on both teams, a furious Geneva comeback from 18 points down in the third quarter, flashy highlight-reel type plays from Saints point guard Cole Gentry, and a second-half explosion by Geneva star Nate Navigato after an improbable scoreless first half. Among much more.
Most importantly for St. Charles East (3-4, 1-2), the win keeps them in the Upstate Eight Conference River Division race after a grueling start to the season with road games at Larkin, St. Charles North and Geneva.
"We put on the board before the game 'conference championship' because in my opinion if we want to win it we had to win tonight," Saints coach Patrick Woods said.
Geneva (6-2, 1-1) never led. Zach Manibog, making his first start of the year, hit back-to-back 3-point shots to give the Saints an early 8-2 lead.
"Zach is one of our best defenders," Woods said of the soccer standout. "That's how he got the start, and then he comes out and knocks down two 3s to give us a spark. I think we're pretty deep, and we showed that today."
After a putback basket by James McQuillan, AJ Washington capped the first quarter with a steal and dunk to put the Saints ahead 18-6.
Washington finished with 6 points and 1 rebound, but he was one of the stars of the game for his work guarding Navigato. Having torched Bloomington for 41 points in his previous game, Navigato was held scoreless in the first half, and the Saints went to the locker room with a 28-14 lead.
"I wasn't worried about offense in the first half, I was worried about getting stops, beating him to his spot and it just worked out in my favor," Washington said. "We came together as a team. We got everyone involved."
McQuillan opened the second half with a steal and breakaway layup, and the Saints' lead grew to as big as 44-26 on consecutive 3-pointers from Dom Adduci. They led 47-33 after three quarters.
"When you give a team a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, that's like trying to climb Mt. Everest in an hour," Geneva coach Phil Ralston said. "It's going to be difficult to do."
The comeback was fueled by getting to the line 23 times in the second half. The Saints were called for the first 11 fouls after halftime.
Navigato in particular started getting to the line. After hitting his final 17 free throws against Bloomington, he made all 11 of his attempts in the second half to run his streak to 28 straight.
"In my opinion that's one of the area's -- if not the state's -- top players, I thought we did a tremendous job," Woods said. "We knew we could hold him off only for so long. He found his way to the free-throw line which he does so well, but we got the lead we needed to sustain."
Barely. Navigato not only scored 18 second-half points, he assisted on four other baskets including a pair of 3s from Mike Landi. The second of those 3s cut the Saints' lead to 53-49, and Landi scored again on Geneva's next possession to make it 53-51.
Jake Asquini buried a clutch 3 to put the Saints back up 56-51 with 1:41 left, but again it was Landi and Navigato rallying Geneva. Navigato fed Landi for a basket, then after a missed Adduci 1-and-1, Navigato swished a 3-pointer from the wing to bring Geneva within 57-56 with 40 seconds left.
Adduci split free throws giving Geneva a chance to tie down 58-56 but the Vikings turned the ball over with 15 seconds to go.
Manibog also split free throws with 8.8 seconds left to keep Geneva within a possession down 59-56. Gentry fouled Cam Cook with 4.7 seconds left, denying Geneva a chance for a tying 3-pointer. The strategy nearly backfired when Cook made the first free throw, missed the second, and Geneva got the ball back when the Saints knocked the rebound out of bounds.
But referees called Navigato for pushing off while trying to get open on the out of bounds play, and Adduci made 2 free throws with 2.8 seconds left to seal the game.
"They are a good team," Gentry said. "They are going to make a run. We made some mistakes but I think it really showed toughness when the chips were down, we were up two, and we got two stops. We showed a lot of toughness out there."
Adduci led the Saints with 19 points, Gentry scored 13 and Manibog added 10.
"Coach stressed we have to come out hungry," Gentry said. "We stressed all week we wanted to win this game right from the start. Thank God we got a big lead."
Landi and Pace Temple joined Navigato in double figures with 12 and 10 points, respectively. The Vikings shot 78 percent from the field in the fourth quarter and 65 percent in the second half, but their 43-point half wasn't enough to make up for the 14-point first half that included 7 first-quarter turnovers against an aggressive Saints' full-court trap.
"W didn't run our sets, we weren't getting post touches, a lot of forced shots," Ralston said of the first half. "Give credit to St. Charles East, they took us out of a lot of stuff, they did some run and jump and it disrupted our flow a little bit.
"Why did it take us two-and-a-half quarters to figure it out? That's the lesson we have to learn from this. We can't free-flow with the game plan and hope and press in the fourth quarter to make that run."