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When the going got tough Friday in the Class 4A East Aurora sectional championship, the Benet Redwings tenderized Geneva inside and out.
Leading 26-23 at halftime, No. 1 seed Benet began the third quarter on a 14-2 run and outscored the No. 6 Vikings 18-6 in the quarter.
Given Benet's disruptive perimeter defenders in a man-to-man defense anchored by 6-foot-9 Xavier-bound Sean O'Mara, that margin essentially decided the outcome. Benet won 60-41, earning the Redwings' first sectional title since 2010 and denying Geneva its first sectional crown since 1963.
"Two things happened there," said Benet coach Gene Heidkamp, whose Redwings (23-7) advance to the Hinsdale Central supersectional against Bartlett sectional champ Glenbard North, an 84-81 winner over Morton, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
"We tightened up defensively and I think we were a much more patient offense," Heidkamp said. "We were able to get the ball inside to Sean, we moved the ball better and we made perimeter shots in the flow of our offense. I think we just played a more patient game in the second half on the offensive end."
O'Mara scored twice right out of halftime, the second a two-handed dunk. Geneva center Loudon Vollbrecht countered on a putback flush, but on consecutive possessions Benet's Colin Bonnett made unanswered 3-point daggers from the same left wing spot to go up 36-25.
Geneva turned the ball over, then fouled O'Mara for 2 free throws. The big man, who notched a game-high 24 points with 8 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, again wheeled in the lane for a 40-25 Redwings lead with 3:54 left in the third quarter.
O'Mara said the message in the locker room at halftime was: "Just stay calm."
"It's the second close (playoff) game we've had at halftime, and just to come into the locker room it's different than where we were at the beginning of the season," O'Mara said. "We've come together and been able to just kind of look at each other, say what's going wrong, figure out what we've got to do to make it better and we're doing it calm. Everybody's responsible for what's going on on the court."
Trailing 44-29 entering the fourth quarter, Geneva (25-6) pulled within 46-34 on a Mike Landi 3 and 2 Cam Cook free throws. Benet's Josh Yesufu answered on a reverse layup, O'Mara drew the fourth and fifth fouls on 9-rebound man Vollbrecht, and made 4 free throws. Benet led 52-34 with 4:35 to play and that was about it.
"They did a great job of scouting us and trying to stop all our actions," said Vikings coach Phil Ralston. "We were going to our second, third and sometimes fourth action within our sets and they were still draped on our guys.
"My hat's off to them. They were certainly the best team we've seen all season. I thought we gave them a great match for a half."
In a telling set of stats, Benet made 22 of 35 field goal attempts on the night, 63 percent shooting. Geneva went 15 of 51, 29 percent.
Benet senior forward Liam Nelligan guarded his Mercury Elite AAU teammate, 6-7 Geneva forward Nate Navigato, and limited the college prospect to 4 points, about 15 under his average, on 2-of-9 shooting. Nelligan also scored 12 points.
"Definitely limit his set shots, like catching off screens and stuff," Nelligan said was the plan. "We wanted to limit how many catch-and-shoot shots their entire team got, not just Nate."
"I knew he was going to be a great defender," Navigato said.
Heidkamp noted Geneva was able to get outside looks in the first half, by Pace Temple, Chris Parrilli and Cam Cook, who led the Vikings with 10 points. Those shots weren't there later.
"If we could get it inside, maybe get some looks, kick it out for a 3, but it just wasn't falling tonight," Cook said. "And with O'Mara playing down near the hoop it's almost impossible to get a shot off."
Geneva finished its season with its most victories since 1963 and won its first regional since 1986.
"It was a terrific year, I wouldn't imagine this," Cook said. "I know we worked our (rear ends) off over the summer and this is what we wanted, we wanted to win a regional and we did that. Everything after that was gravy, like coach said.
"I couldn't be more proud to play with seniors like Chris, Justin (Durante) and Jason (D'Amico) and my teammates. Easily my favorite year in basketball."