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Larkin coach Deryn Carter stood in darkened Chesbrough Field House 20 minutes after another agonizingly close game in the crosstown series against rival Elgin had concluded.
With his tie now loosened and the tension of 32 minutes of high-pressure high school basketball finally beginning to ebb, Carter ruminated on the Royals' hard-fought 71-67 victory and shook his head, well aware his team had just survived the kind of test only a rival can offer.
"Unbelievable, man, unbelievable," Larkin's fifth-year coach said. "We'll take it. It's a tough rivalry. Like we tell our guys, you want to win in March and you want to win when you play Elgin. And we squeaked one out."
Host Elgin (3-7, 1-2) slugged toe-to-toe with favored Larkin (8-1, 4-0) from the outset of Thursday's Upstate Eight River clash. The Maroons jumped to a 12-3 lead and still led 45-44 through three quarters, but the senior-heavy Royals played like the experienced team they are down the stretch.
Elgin took its final lead at 59-57 when senior Isaiah Butler fed sophomore Lavion Baldwin for a fast-break bucket with 3:25 left, marking one of five fourth-quarter lead changes.
However, Larkin 6-foot-5 freshman Christian Negron, who did not play in the first quarter due to a team violation, scored 2 of his team-high 18 points on a putback to tie it. Negron pulled down 9 rebounds.
Elgin missed a chance to grab the lead when an open layup wouldn't rimmed out. Larkin senior guard Derrick Streety made Elgin pay by burying an open 3-point look from the left corner to put the Royals ahead 62-59.
After a missed 3-point shot by the Maroons, Larkin senior guard Kendale McCullum countered with a high-arcing floater in the lane that staked the Royals to a 64-59 lead with 2:08 to play. Larkin then sank just enough free throws in the final 1:33 (6 of 12) to keep the Maroons from making it a 1-possession game.
"We stayed under control," said McCullum, who finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals. "We didn't listen to the fans. We kept our composure, didn't force anything and we were taking smart shots."
Larkin won the rebounding battle 34-27, thanks to a 15-8 advantage in the fourth quarter.
"Our guys showed a lot of poise throughout the whole game," Carter said. "Then, down the stretch, they did what we expect them to do. They're seniors. They made experienced plays, they made free throws and got some key rebounds. Hats off to our guys. They did the job."
Elgin coach Mike Sitter could accept the final outcome considering how hard his team played.
"Holy cow did we have good effort," he said. "I'll take that any night of the week. I'm proud of each and every one of them. Larkin is a good team. I think they had a little more senior maturity on the court late. We missed a layup and we took a bad jumper. We were in a tight game with a huge crowd and I don't know that we reacted as well as they did."
Butler and senior wing Donte Harper led Elgin with 17 points apiece and senior Desmond Sanders added 15 points and 5 rebounds. Senior Kiko Mari scored 2 points and hauled down 8 rebounds.
Streety finished with 14 points for Larkin, including three 3-pointers, and senior forward Brayden Royse posted 11 points and grabbed 5 rebounds.
The teams meet again at Larkin on Feb. 7.