St. Charles East's basketball team entered the St. Charles North gym as a confident bunch Wednesday night.
The third-seeded Saints (18-11) crossed the river on the return trip home with a little more conviction following their convincing 65-50 victory over the second-seeded North Stars (16-10) in the Class 4A regional semifinals.
St. Charles East, which will look to capture its first regional title since 2007 on Friday night against South Elgin (16-14), connected on 8 of its first 13 field-goal attempts while grabbing a 21-11 first-quarter lead.
Trailing 4-3 after the first 2 minutes, the Saints went on a 15-2 surge over the next 4 minutes to take early control in the rubber match of the 3-game season series against the North Stars.
After senior forward A.J. Washington (7 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocked shots) hit a baseline jumper to put the Saints on top 5-4, junior guard Cole Gentry (12 points, 8 assists) drained back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 11-4.
Junior guard Jake Asquini continued the Saints' early assault from beyond the arc as he hit a long 3-pointer to extend the lead to 18-6 and then beat the first-quarter buzzer with an NBA-range 3-pointer from the centerline markings of the volleyball court.
It was the Saints' fourth 3-pointer of the opening period.
"The energy is always there when it's a Northeast game but we're focused right now," said Saints coach Patrick Woods. "We talk about playoff energy -- we brought the energy tonight."
That energy continued throughout.
St. Charles North was able to close within double figures on just 1 occasion the rest of the way -- when a deep 3-pointer by junior Jack Callaghan (15 points, 10 rebounds) made it 23-14 with 6:39 left in the second quarter.
Jake Clodi's 3-pointer ignited a 10-2 run that was capped with a 3-point play from senior David Mason (5 points, 2 blocked shots) as the Saints' lead swelled to 33-16.
St. Charles East led 33-20 at halftime.
"They shoot the ball as well as anybody in the state," North Stars coach Tom Poulin said of the Saints. "But I thought we allowed them to get to the paint on the dribble and that's the key.
"You have to keep Dom (Adduci) and Cole out of the paint otherwise they collapse you. Our help-side defense wasn't where it needed to be and when we did help they were getting to second and third options with extra passes."
Any hope of a North Stars' second-half rally evaporated in the opening minutes of the third quarter.
Back-to-back inside buckets from 6-5 junior forward Mick Vyzral and another 3-pointer by Asquini (11 points) extended the Saints' lead to 40-21.
"We've all gotten better honestly," said Woods. "I think the thing that showed tonight was the way we moved the ball around. We were sharing the ball a lot."
After a layup by senior guard Alec Goetz (11 points) whittled the North Stars' deficit to 47-35 with 6:55 remaining, Vyzral delivered the dagger as he hit an off-balance, over-the-shoulder shot that wound up as a 3-point play and then poured in a 3-pointer from the corner on the next possession to make it 53-35.
Vyzral led all players with 17 points and 12 rebounds in arguably his finest moment of the campaign.
"It was a great time to have a career game," said Woods. "He has had double-doubles before but he was extra special tonight."
"My teammates just found me," said Vyzral, who was 7 of 10 from the field. "I tried to cut to the open spots and knock them down."
"I thought what 'Vyz' did was get on the offensive glass," said Poulin. "Second possessions in a game like this need to be nonexistent.
"They beat us," added the coach. "They're playing better basketball right now. After they extended the lead in the first quarter, that was it. We really weren't closing the gap after that -- we were just kind of treading water."
In his first start since rolling his ankle nearly 2 weeks ago against Elgin, Adduci added 7 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
Tyler DeMoss, 1 of 10 seniors playing their final prep games, had 6 points for the North Stars, who lost their last 3 games.
"Alec (Goetz) is like a son to me," said Poulin. "I love that kid and all of these seniors. They're just great people. You miss spending time with good people especially after you spend as much time as we do with them. I hope that they appreciated myself and our coaching staff as much as we did them."