Losing six straight games to tip off its 2013-14 boys basketball schedule, including an 0-5 record at the West Chicago Thanksgiving Classic, could have sent Marmion Academy into a season-long tailspin.
Instead, the Cadets regrouped, fixed some problems on offense and defense and now have their sights set on the Suburban Christian Conference Blue Division title after winning six of their last nine games. Marmion continued its impressive turnaround Friday night with a 62-56 victory over Aurora Christian at Alumni Hall.
The Cadets improved to 1-1 in the Suburban Christian Blue and 6-9 overall.
"We feel we could still win the division," said junior forward Jake Esp, who paced Marmion Friday with 18 points and added seven rebounds. "We've got to beat St. Francis and beat Wheaton Academy twice to do it. We definitely have a chance."
Marmion coach Ryan Paradise said the primary reasons for his team's resurgence are more balanced scoring and a stronger commitment to team defense and rebounding. The Cadets excelled in both areas against Aurora Christian (9-8, 2-3).
Marmion took control of the game behind a stout defensive effort, limiting the Eagles scoreless for over five minutes starting late in the first quarter. In that decisive span, the Cadets scored 13 unanswered points, turning an 11-8 deficit into a 21-11 lead on a jumper from the foul line by Danny Bicknell with 4:09 remaining in the first half.
Aurora Christian missed nine consecutive shots and struggled to grab offensive rebounds in that cold spell, which ended on a three-point play by senior forward Grant Schweisthal.
"We did a good job on the defensive glass holding them to one shot on most possessions, and we played solid help defense," Paradise said. "Offensively, we weren't forcing anything against their 2-3 zone. When we take what the defense gives us and make the extra pass, we get great shots and are a good offensive team. We had balanced scoring tonight, too. Several guys contributed. I love where we're at as a team. We're playing better and better each game."
Marmion looked en route to an easy victory when the Cadets stretched their lead to 47-33 late in the third quarter on a driving layup and turnaround jumper by Esp. But a pair of free throws by sophomore R.D. Lutze and a rebound putback by Steve Buhrt in the last five seconds of the quarter gave Aurora Christian a second wind, inching the Eagles within 47-37 heading into the final 8:00.
With Sheehan, Marmion's floor leader, fouling out late in the third quarter, Aurora Christian drew as close as 50-45 midway through the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer from the left wing by Lutze. However, the Eagles' rally was plagued by 10-for-21 free-throw shooting. The visitors missed 6 of 10 foul shots down the stretch, and Marmion overcame foul-outs by three starters thanks to nine fourth-quarter points at the free-throw line to preserve the win.
"We're playing full games now," said junior guard Jordan Glasgow. "At the beginning of the season, we played well for parts of the game but either started slow and finished well or started strong but didn't finish the game like we should have. We played a good overall game tonight. Guys stepped up when teammates got in foul trouble in the last quarter, and we hit enough free throws at the end to get the win."
Esp's 18-point performance came on the heels of 25- and 22-point outbursts last weekend against Notre Dame and Buffalo Grove. He had plenty of support from Sheehan (14 points, four assists), Bicknell (four points, 12 rebounds), Glasgow (nine points, three steals) and Tyler Maryanski (eight points).
"Jake has been on fire lately," Paradise said of the versatile 6-foot-5 junior, who started several games last season as a sophomore. "Besides two 20-plus scoring games, he's worked hard on the boards, getting double-doubles in those games. But the key is we're not trying to force the ball in to him. He's scoring within the flow of the offense, and we're getting balanced scoring."
Lutze topped the Eagles with 19 points. Senior point guard Johnathan Harrell added 18 points and nine rebounds.
Aurora Christian and Marmion return to the court for games on Saturday. The Eagles host Lisle in a nonconference tilt, while Marmion gets a visit from St. Edward in a Suburban Christian crossover contest.