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Larkin guard Taylor Boley is a talented shooter known for his offense, but the senior made the defensive play of the game in the waning seconds of a 59-56 victory over rival Elgin on Friday and lifted the Larkin boys basketball program to new heights in the process.
Host Larkin led 57-56 with seven ticks to play as Elgin inbounded the ball on its side of midcourt. The pass was triggered into Elgin leading scorer Isaiah Butler coming off a screen, guarded tightly by Larkin senior guard Kendale McCullum.
Once Butler received the ball above the circle, he reversed course on a dime and drove toward the lane, losing McCullum, who slipped. But when Butler tried to get past a high ball screen set by teammate Ryan Sitter, he ran right into Boley, Sitter's defender.
With a foul to give, Boley aggressively swatted at the ball and knocked it loose to McCullum, who grabbed it and streaked the other way for a game-sealing layup at the buzzer.
"I saw Kendale slip up and I knew that coming off the screen it would be harder for him to get back," Boley said. "Coach (Deryn Carter) had just talked in the timeout that we can't be selfish on defense, that we have to help everywhere. So I stepped up to help and he bounced it off my leg and we just finished the game."
Naturally, the Maroons saw things differently.
"I was trying to penetrate," Butler said, "but they brought a second defender up and he fouled me and took the ball out of my hands. That was hit. He fouled me, I couldn't get the ball back and that was it."
The final buzzer sounded and the bursting Larkin student section immediately stormed the court in celebration of not only the Royals' sixth straight win over their rivals, but to celebrate the clinching of the outright title in the Upstate Eight Conference's River Division for the second straight season.
In fact, this marks the first time in school history the boys basketball program has won consecutive Upstate Eight titles outright. Larkin also won UEC titles in 1991-92 and 1992-93, but the Royals shared the 1991-92 title with West Aurora.
"We always hear about how great those teams were in the 1990s and this is something that they didn't do," said Larkin senior Drew Jones, who scored 10 points and grabbed 15 of Larkin's 27 rebounds. "It's awesome."
The accomplishment was not lost on Carter, whose team improved to 20-3 overall, 10-0 in the UEC River.
"For a while our mantra was "bring the program back," Larkin's fifth-year coach said. "Tonight we did something the program has never done. I don't know if we need to change our mantra at all, but I'm proud as heck. This is a big-time win. I know some coaches don't care about conference, but I care about conference. It means a lot to us to win outright, back-to-back championships for the first time in school history."
Like so many games in the 125-game history of the Larkin-Elgin series -- which the Maroons still lead 79-46 -- momentum switched from one side to the other repeatedly. Larkin led 20-16 after a quarter, but Elgin outscored the Royals 19-11 in the second quarter to take a 35-31 halftime lead, helped by Butler, who scored 10 of his team-high 18 points in the first two periods.
Elgin (9-14, 36) led 39-34 in the third quarter when McCullum ignited an 11-0 Larkin run by contributing 3 steals and 2 buckets in a span of 2:01.
Larkin led 51-46 heading to the fourth quarter, which saw four lead changes in the final 2:09.
Butler gave Elgin a 1-point lead for the last time on a pair of free throws with 1:02 to play, but McCullum staked the Royals to a 57-56 advantage when he drove from the left wing and sank a soft floater in the lane with 35 seconds remaining. McCullum led all scorers with 19 points to go with 4 steals and 4 assists.
"They had a lot of gaps, so I was just thinking 'attack, attack,' and I went for the score," McCullum said. "My teammates trust me and I want the ball in my hands. If we lose, I would have had the guys put it on me."
It was a tough loss to swallow for the Maroons, who played hard for 32 minutes only to drop their third game in four outings.
"You can't fault our intensity or effort," Elgin coach Mike Sitter said. "That was 100 percent. It was a great game. I turned to our coaches in the middle of the fourth quarter and said I don't care how it ends. I was a great game to watch. That's what you want to see."
Sophomore Lavion Baldwin scored 16 points and senior guard Donte Harper finished with 8 points, 3 steals and 4 rebounds for Elgin.
Freshman Christian Negron had 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks, and Boley and Brayden Royse each added 6 points for Larkin.