Geneva coach Phil Ralston called the Vikings' 61-51 victory "especially meaningful." There were several reasons.
Forging a three-way tie for second place behind Larkin in the Upstate Eight Conference River Division with the North Stars and St. Charles East, which beat Elgin on Friday, Geneva (20-5, 8-4) achieved consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time since 1981-82.
Also, Geneva avenged a Jan. 10 loss to the North Stars and, after St. Charles North (16-8, 8-4) overcame a turnover-laden first half to pull within three points midway through the fourth quarter Friday, Ralston enjoyed the Vikings' resolve to put a damper on the North Stars' senior night.
"For heaven sakes, (St. Charles North) is a team that took Simeon, went toe-to-toe with them. This is not a bad team and on top of which they beat us pretty soundly at our place," Ralston said, recalling the North Stars' 57-44 victory Jan. 10.
"The way I look at it is it was a great win for us, a quality win for us," he said. "The best part of it is they threw everything at us, they played a great game at the end, and we withstood the storm and were able to come out on top."
The Vikings led 28-14 at halftime, forcing St. Charles North into 9 first-half turnovers and 5-of-18 shooting. Geneva guards Pace Temple, 14-point scorer Chris Parrilli and Daniel Santacaterina limited St. Charles North's top scorer, Alec Goetz, to 2 points and 1 shot attempt in the first half.
Despite losing Goetz the entire second half to illness, St. Charles North fixed its turnover problem and shot 14 of 24 to apply pressure.
"I think the first half we were kind of slow. We were really stagnant on offense and I think in the second half we were starting to attack gaps better, dishing it out," said North Stars guard Jake Ludwig, who scored 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half.
"At the end we didn't finish well, though, down the stretch," he said. "We've got to work on that. It's February, we've got to win the regional."
Trailing 33-21 halfway through the third quarter, Ludwig, Tyler DeMoss and Jack Callaghan made a late push to trim the deficit to 38-34 entering the fourth.
In the fourth the North Stars pulled within 41-38 on DeMoss' lay-in, and 46-43 on a Ludwig three-point play at 4:37 of the fourth quarter.
Each time, though, Geneva's Nate Navigato had the last word. First the 6-foot-7 junior with offers from South Dakota State, Northern Illinois and University of Illinois-Chicago swished a 3-pointer, one of five on the night. Then, after a Ralston timeout, he got the ball in the paint to convert a traditional three-point play.
"Without my team I couldn't have done any of this. I mean, they got me the ball and I was able to hit open shots," said Navigato, who led all scorers with 26 points on 9 of 12 shooting from the floor.
That's his usual response. But how does he do it?
"I just look for holes, really," Navigato said. "When we run plays, if those aren't open I just look for the best ability to get my teammates or me open for good looks for a high-percentage shot, and it works."
It worked too often for the liking of St. Charles North coach Tom Poulin, who after several days tending to his ailing father in Florida flew in just in time to put on a suit and watch the sophomores. Poulin didn't have much good to say about second place, but Friday's second-half rally cleansed some bitterness.
"I'm proud of our kids and their effort and it's a heck of a conference, it's a heck of a division this year," Poulin said. "So to be 8-4, that's an accomplishment. To lose twice to Larkin, once to (St. Charles) East, once to Geneva, those are good teams. But second place is second place, and we wanted to be first place. And a regional title I think trumps a conference title, and that's what we're shooting for as we go forward."