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A handful of boys basketball teams can make an argument for being the best in the Class 4A East Aurora sectional.
There's no debating the hottest team.
Naperville Central solidified that honor with last week's 57-56 DuPage Valley Conference victory at West Aurora, a win sealed by Ryan Antony's late 3-pointer. If the Redhawks (17-5) beat Wheaton Warrenville South on Friday, they'll be riding a nine-game winning streak into sectional seeding.
"I felt good and the kids felt good going into that West Aurora game," said Redhawks coach Pete Kramer. "That's the way it's been during this streak of ours."
The only thing standing between Naperville Central and a 12-game winning streak is a buzzer-beating home loss to Glenbard North on Jan. 11. That loss aside, it's been nothing but positives for the Redhawks since late December.
Success no doubt hinges on the experience of veteran starters Antony and Nick Czarnowski, but the emergence of 6-foot-6 senior forward Patrick Maloney, who had 20 points and 14 rebounds against West Aurora, put the Redhawks over the top in the last two months.
Naperville Central, still one game behind the Blackhawks in the DVC, needs help from others to challenge for the conference title. The Redhawks, however, will gladly settle for a deep playoff run.
"That's what we're getting ready for," Kramer said. "The playoffs."
With three sophomores logging heavy minutes, Glenbard West sends the clear signal of a youth movement.
The skill of Justin Pierce, Alex Passi and Brian Cochrane is evident on any give night, but Hilltoppers coach Tim Hoder knows work still needs to be done. Without much size on the team as a whole, the young Hilltoppers need to become a more physical group.
That'll take time, especially on nights like last Friday when leading scorer and senior leader Corey Davis sat much of the game due to foul trouble.
Without Davis in the backcourt, even more pressure falls on the younger players.
"Our young kids are all getting better," Hoder said. "They're getting a lot of experience and they have to mature basketball-wise, they have to mature as far as understanding the game, they have to mature skill-wise. And, most importantly, they've got to mature size- and strength-wise."
The Hilltoppers receive physical play from 6-foot-5 junior Kalen Starkey, but they were also counting on 6-7 senior Reid Colliander anchoring the post. Because Colliander's out with an injury, matching up against bigger opponents becomes problematic.
"Kalen's really been playing hard for us," Hoder said. "He's really battling for us."
Wheaton Warrenville South (4-18) has spent the bulk of the season trying to find the right combination of players to boost its success.
In last Friday's loss to Naperville North, the search continued with the promotion to varsity of sophomores Matt Dacy-Seijo and Eric Rasch. Tuesday against Glenbard West, Dacy-Seijo started and scored 5 points.
Rasch, meanwhile, stepped up with 12 post points and 3 blocked shots against the Hilltoppers. Tigers coach Bob Szorc hopes the duo's arrival provides a spark.
"(Rasch) is giving us great minutes right now, and he's only going to get better and better," Szorc said.
It wasn't Szorc's plan to add players this deep into the season, but recent struggles necessitated the moves. The Tigers have four DuPage Valley Conference games remaining to try and turn things around heading into the playoffs.
"Trying to push the right buttons," Szorc said. "It's more than Xs and Os at this point with this group. Just trying to push different buttons and see if we can wake up a little energy. Sometimes it just takes a little while to work."
The confidence game:
Coming off a 90-85 nonconference loss to Oswego East on Tuesday, Metea Valley (14-10) looks to summon a little more defense, and confidence, Friday at Waubonsie Valley (16-7). The host Warriors are a game ahead of the Mustangs in the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division, 7-3 to 6-4.
"Coach (Chaz) Taft's got them believing, and they have a lot of confidence," said Metea coach Bob Vozza, who also tries to instill confidence into his boys.
"I know the guys were upset with the way they defended Tuesday night," he said. "If not, we reminded them."
The shoe was on the other foot Dec. 21, when Metea scored 45 second-half points to beat the Warriors 71-47.
"In the second half they just shot the lights out," Taft recalled. "They missed three shots."
In that game Metea's Marquell Oliver scored 16 points, Justin Kuhn 15 and Mark Konkle 11. But Taft said the key to Waubonsie's success Friday is reducing the effectiveness of Mustangs point guard Bryson Oliver, Marquell's cousin, both in transition and half-court offense.
"We just have to handle his penetration," Taft said.
He'll assign Nick Karkazis to the case.
"He's playing great," Taft said of the senior point guard. "He does a good job running our offense and being up there and pressuring the ball on defense. He's just been very steady this year."
Vozza isn't expecting a margin like what happened Dec. 21. Since then Waubonsie Valley has gone 11-2, guards Jay DeHaan and Matt Gialamas are both in double-figure scoring -- DeHaan at a team-high 14.2 points -- and Waubonsie is allowing opponents an average of only 49.8 points per game.
Defense, and confidence down the stretch, are key.
"In order to compete in these remaining three games and then in the playoffs, you're going to have to defend to be successful," Vozza said.
It's a first:
When West Chicago sophomore swingman Mike Bibbs nailed six 3-point baskets and scored 27 points in a 90-63 victory over South Elgin on Feb. 7, it was the only time this season a Wildcat other than senior John Konchar had led the team in scoring.
There have been a few close calls. The athletic, 6-foot Bibbs has had games of 29, 25 and 23 points only to be eclipsed by Konchar. Even in one of Konchar's lowest totals of the season, 15 points in a 51-47 loss to Waubonsie Valley on Jan. 10, Bibbs scored 14.
West Chicago (13-10) benefits when the points get spread out, obviously, In games where Bibbs scores at or above his 14.2 average the Wildcats are 6-3.
There's something about South Elgin that brings out the numbers in West Chicago. In a 99-88 loss on Dec. 19, Konchar scored a program-record 49 points with 27 rebounds. Last Friday, in addition to Bibbs' marksmanship, West Chicago had Konchar officially with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 7 steals and 5 blocked shots.
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