The Vernon Hills and Wheeling boys basketball teams engaged in a hardwood tug of war Monday in the opening round of the Wildcat Hardwood Classic, and the visiting Cougars won the battle, a hard-fought 57-50 decision.
They advance to Thursday's quarterfinal against Naperville Central at 8:45 p.m., while the Wildcats will face Streamwood in a 2:00 p.m. consolation round matchup.
It was a game where the Cougars (9-2) led throughout but were unable to put away the Wildcats (6-6).
"We couldn't extend our lead late," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said.
On the flip side, Wheeling coach Anthony Como noted, "We had chances (late in the game) when we were down 5."
Vernon Hills led 42-33 after three quarters, but baskets by Wheeling seniors Chris Piero and Jeremy Stephani (game-high 22 points) cut the lead to 5 with 7:17 left in regulation. The Cougars answered with baskets by juniors Lem Turner and Matt Weaver to make it 46-33 with 5:27 remaining.
Wheeling was able to whittle the margin back to 55-50 in the waning seconds when Piero (9 points) nailed a 3-pointer, but Robby Nardini (team-best 12 points) knocked down a pair of free throws with 2.1 seconds left.
How Vernon Hills assumed the lead can be credited to long-range shooting by Nardini, junior Cory Levin (10 points), and Weaver, who hit from beyond the arc in the first two minutes.
"The key was we came out with a lot of energy at the start," McCarty said. "We're playing Wheeling on its home court with a chance to move to the right in the bracket.
"We had some guys really step up," McCarty said. "I was happy with the effort."
"We're really good at drive and kick out, and we've been really good at 3s this year," Levin said.
"Give them credit; they came out and knocked down some 3s to put us behind the 8-ball," Como said. "On the flip side, it took us a while to start executing our game plan.
"I was disappointed with our energy and enthusiasm for the game. On Alumni Night, I thought we'd be more enthusiastic. I'll blame myself for that."
The Cougars extended their 14-12 first quarter lead to 32-21, thanks in part to 3-pointers by Michael Mariella, Levin, Bo Manso (10 points) and Sam Rattner. Stephani warmed up with 8 points in the third quarter and helped the Cats cut the lead to 42-33.
Wheeling had several late opportunities swatted aside by the 6-5 Turner, who tallied half of his 6 blocked shots in the fourth quarter.
"Most of the players on the team are offensive players, but I consider myself a defensive player," said Turner who is a middle blocker on the volleyball team. "My vertical helps a lot, and I can anticipate when and where they're going to shoot."
"We talked about shot faking," Como said. "Kudos to him. He's a game changer."
Six-7 sophomore Patrick Szpir backed Stephani on offense with 10 points.