After all the years of hard work, Glenbard North was not about to let a few missed free throws block another chance at a regional championship.
Of course the Panthers (22-5) would really have loved to make a few more of their foul shots Friday night against Lake Park in the championship game at the Class 4A Leyden regional, but they used great defense late to power them to a 48-44 victory and their first regional crown since 2002.
Sixth-seeded Glenbard North made just 12 of 30 free throws, allowing the No. 14 Lancers to say within striking distance the entire game. But after Lake Park's Stefan Meccia tied the game at 42-42 with a free throw with 4:03 left to play, the Panthers' defense tightened and allowed just two points the rest of the way.
"Obviously, we would have liked to make more (free throws) to increase our lead there and maybe pull away, but it just didn't happen," Panthers coach Joe Larson said.
"You've still got to get stops, and I thought we did a great job defensively in that fourth quarter getting stops and getting the ball back.
"Sometimes it happens in the playoffs. You'll win games that maybe are not the prettiest in the world. You just find ways to get things done."
The game started well for the Panthers as Chip Flanigan tallied 8 of his game-high 14 points in the first quarter and the DuPage Valley Conference co-champs jumped ahead 14-5 following a 3-pointer by Jeremiah Fleming.
But the 16-15 Lancers, who earlier in the week upset third-seeded Oak Park, closed to within 15-11 at the end of the quarter and then led 27-23 at the half behind a trio of 3-pointers from Cameron Van Aswegen, who scored all 11 of his points in the first half.
The second half was tight throughout, but the more experienced Panthers received big contributions from a veteran cast that includes Justin Jackson, Flanigan and Fleming. Jackson had three strong drives to the basket in the third quarter then came up big on the defensive end late with clutch rebounds and a big blocked shot.
"We worked really hard for this. We didn't play our best and we know that, but with the playoffs, sometimes you've just got to find a way to win," said Jackson, who had 8 points and 9 rebounds.
Lake Park coach Josh Virostko couldn't fault his players' effort one bit. He just hopes that his team learns from the experience to help take another step next season.
"It was a great game and I think that it was positive from the aspect that both teams battled," he said. "Glenbard North deserved to win. They took care of business. But it was a good atmosphere, the kids got after it, and I'm proud of everybody involved in the game."
Virostko told his players afterward that they should be proud they took Glenbard North down to the wire.
"I told them, that's the conference champ, a 20-game winner and you're right there. You saw what the model looked like, but you've got to work as hard as the model does. And I know how hard those Glenbard North kids have worked. If our kids do that next year they can be in the same position," Virostko said.
Fleming, who had a big 3-pointer in the third quarter and finished with 11 points to help Glenbard North advance to next Wednesday's Bartlett sectional against Proviso East, now has something on his brothers, who also played for Glenbard North.
"It feels good too because my brothers hadn't won a regional and now I got one," the senior guard said.