Though he started at wide receiver for Naperville North's football team, Anthony Rehayem secretly dreamed of playing quarterback for the Huskies.
For one shining moment Tuesday night, the senior guard got his wish ... sort of.
After St. Charles East inched within 56-55 with 43 seconds left in regulation, Rehayem calmly hit Jelani McClain Jr. in stride with a length-of-the-court inbounds pass over the top of the Saints' full-court press. McClain Jr. converted the pass into a touchdown, er, three-point play, giving Naperville North a 59-55 cushion that helped the Huskies stave off the Saints in a tension-filled 61-58 non-conference victory in St. Charles.
"Anthony's always wanted to be a quarterback, so he had his chance on that play," North coach Jeff Powers joked. "He made a great pass, and Jelani made a big play right there. Jelani's a special player as just a sophomore."
The win was Naperville's fifth in a row since switching to a Princeton-style halfcourt offense of patiently probing defenses with passes and back cuts for easy shots around the basket. The Huskies (14-8) have beaten a spate of quality opponents in that winning streak, including Plainfield East, led by University of Illinois-bound standout Aaron Jordan, and now St. Charles East (12-11) and All-Area guard Dom Adduci.
"The new offense is working well," said McClain Jr., who paced North with 19 points Tuesday. "It makes opponents play defense more, wearing them down by the fourth quarter after having to chase us around the first three quarters. I like it. It involves a lot of cuts and back-door movement. Our defense is playing better now, too. We're sticking to our team motto: Play Angry. We're getting after teams defensively more, battling harder for rebounds and loose balls and playing more as a team."
The Saints still managed to give themselves a chance to send the game into overtime in the final seconds, closing the gap to 59-58 on a 3-pointer by Cole Gentry with :4.9 to go. But Huskies senior Michael Laurenzo buried two free throws with :2.8 remaining to force East to attempt a tying 3-point shot by Adduci. The senior marksman, who topped all scorers with 20 points, got a decent look from just behind the arc, but his 3-pointer rimmed out as time expired.
In a matchup of contrasting styles, St. Charles East's frenetic baseline-to-baseline man-to-man trapping pressure flustered Naperville North's methodical offense in the early going. The Saints scored more points (20) in the opening quarter than most of the Huskies' opponents had compiled in an entire half recently, as they had held their last four foes to an average of 35.5 points per game. Adduci erupted for eight of those points, mostly off fast-break layups and drives to the basket, and the Saints owned a 20-15 lead.
But Naperville North changed the tempo to its own liking in the next two quarters, building a 38-32 lead behind an 11-1 run early in the third quarter. While the Huskies struggled at times with East's defensive pressure, committing 26 turnovers, the Saints were uncharacteristically sloppy themselves, turning the ball over a season-high 23 times.
Naperville North was also able to limit St. Charles East's transition opportunities by outworking the Saints on the boards. The Huskies outrebounded the hosts 37-17. Rebounding has been a bugaboo for St. Charles East in its last two games; Geneva dominated the Saints 47-16 on the glass in an 18-point Vikings victory on Feb. 1, East's last game before facing the Huskies.
"We have one guy rebounding. That's AJ (Washington)," Saints coach Patrick Woods lamented, referring to the 6-foot-5 senior outrebounding all his teammates combined with 10 boards Tuesday.
Washington added 11 points and 6 blocks.
"When that happens, it's tough to win. I thought we fought hard all game," Woods said. "Naperville North is a good team. They got after the ball a lot harder than we did. We'll fix it in practice this week or else we'll be the best-conditioned team in the Fox Valley."
The Saints will try to regroup at Batavia on Saturday with a difficult regional looming that features Upstate Eight River Division champion Larkin and St. Charles North.
The Huskies will try to stretch their winning streak to six games on Friday in a DuPage Valley Conference tilt at Lake Park.