It was all seniors versus all juniors in the starting lineups.
And on senior night at Grant on Friday, it was the seniors who prevailed.
Grant, with its senior-oriented lineup and roster, showed some senior savvy in making just enough plays at the very end to pull out a 57-55 North Suburban Conference Prairie Division victory over a younger Vernon Hills team in which only one senior, a reserve, saw the floor.
“This is a group (of seniors) that has played together and stuck together for a lot of years, through feeder basketball all the way up,” said Grant senior forward Steve Dunning, referring to fellow senior starters Ryan Noda, Devan Bald, Joe Sadauskas and Matt Malmberg. “We’re finally here senior year on this night and it’s our big moment.”
Dunning had plenty of big moments for Grant, which improves to 13-12 overall and 7-5 in the Prairie. He scored 13 of his team-high 15 points in the first half and dominated the paint.
Three other seniors had their moments in the sun, too.
Malmberg, who hadn’t hit a shot all night, knocked down a crucial 3-pointer with 1:10 left to pull the Bulldogs to within a point, 55-54. Then, about 20 seconds later, Burns hit a jumper to give Grant a 56-55 lead.
Sadauskas drained a free throw with about 19 seconds left to add some insurance.
“My teammates did a good job of getting me open and I just knocked it down,” Malmberg said of his big shot from downtown. “The shots weren’t really falling for me most of the night, but my coaches just kept telling me to keep shooting, so I did. I knew they’d fall eventually.
“We’ve been doing situational drills to prepare for something like this, where we’re up by a couple points, or down by a couple points and the practice helped.”
The Bulldogs almost didn’t get a chance to put their late-game strategies to use.
Grant was up 27-24 at halftime, but Vernon Hills, which got 21 second-half points from Robby Nardini (26 points on the game), stormed back and took a 2-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Cougars (14-11, 6-6 Prairie) then stretched that with some free throws and went up by as many as 6 points with less than two minutes left in the game when a muffed pass by Grant in the backcourt landed in the hands of Nardini, who converted on an easy, uncontested layup.
That put Vernon Hills up 55-49.
But Grant kept plugging away.
Bald, another senior, also scored a basket in the waning moments to ignite the comeback.
“They just kept battling. We tried to put them away, but they hung in there,” Nardini said. “We couldn’t close it out. We let it get away. We’ll learn from our mistakes. They battled harder and they made a couple shots at the end and we didn’t.”
Nardini was the only player to reach double-figures for Vernon Hills. Junior forward Sam Rattner added 9 points on three 3-pointers while junior guard Bo Manso added 6 points on two 3-pointers.
“I told our guys after the game that (Grant) started all seniors and we started all juniors so this has to be a situation where we continue to learn, and getting wins on the road is always tough, especially here at Grant,” Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. “We’re walking out of here knowing that this one was in our grasp and we kind of gave it to them. But if we learn from it, we can walk out of here with our heads up, especially with the young group that we have.”
For Grant, Noda and Bald also finished in double-figures with 12 points apiece. Burns added 8 points and Sadauskas had 7 points.
“In the past, when we’ve been in those situations when we’re down late in games, we’ve kind of panicked and crumbled and given up easy layups and that’s cost us games,” Grant coach Wayne Bosworth said. “But give our guys credit tonight. They stayed calm and we did a nice job of keeping our composure and staying the course.”