The Timothy Christian boys basketball team walked out of the locker room Friday night and back up the stairs into the St. Joseph gymnasium with understandably long faces after the Chargers prevailed 51-42 to win its own Class 3A regional title.
But regardless of Friday's outcome, the ink is dry on the Trojans' best season in three years and a big turnaround from a sub-.500 team last season to an 18-10 record this winter.
"This group has so much heart. A lot of people didn't expect us to raise a level like we did," said Timothy Christian coach Jack LeGrand. "We were predicted fifth in conference (Metro Suburban) and tied for second with Glenbard South."
The Trojans, a 10th seed in the Westinghouse sectional, led for most of the third quarter. However, Timothy Christian was well into double-digit turnovers by then and another was converted by the Chargers' Glynn Watson for a bucket to put his team up 41-40 at the end of 24 minutes of play.
The second-seeded Westchester school, which faces Fenwick in sectional semifinal play Wednesday, opened the final quarter with two free throws from 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic, who led his team with 16 points, followed by a put-back from him to put St. Joseph up 45-40. And at about the 5:40 mark, the Chargers started eating clock., lots of it. For about 2:47, Westchester passed the ball between three players around midcourt.
Later, St. Joseph went up by 7 and then ate more clock before the Trojans had to start fouling with the Chargers going 4 of 4 from the free-throw line in the last 45 seconds. Timothy Christian's lone basket of the quarter came from Joe Bishop.
According to St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore, whose team improved to 25-7, the key to the victory was better defense in the second half.
"We didn't defend well. We had to do a better job on the big guy (Connor VanderBrug) and we did a good job on No. 14 (Ben Lodewyk). He's the other shooter," Pingatore said.
In his final game for Timothy Christian, the 6-foot-6 VanderBrug scored a game-high 27 points with a game-high 11 rebounds. He hit for 19 points in the first half.
In his last four games going into Friday, VanderBrug, who will continue playing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., next season, had scored 37, 37, 31 and 38 points respectively.
"We came together and stuck together as a family. I am so proud of my team," VanderBrug said.
He went 4 of 4 in the first quarter for 10 points and hit 4 of 4 free throws the next quarter and scored the final two baskets, including a 3-pointer, to close out the first half.
Those buckets were crucial as they capped a 14-4 Timothy Christian run after the Chargers had completely dominated the first four minutes of the second period.
Justin Rhiner was also a big contributor for the Trojans with 10 rebounds.