South Elgin thought it took Rockford Auburn's best shot when the Knights bolted ahead of the Storm 22-9 in the first quarter of Friday night's Elgin Class 4A sectional final.
Turns out Auburn actually saved its best for last.
But in between South Elgin sure did give the NIC-10 champions a run for their money.
Auburn stared another potential South Elgin upset in the face and turned in a sizzling fourth quarter in overcoming the Storm 83-73 in front of a frenzied crowd estimated at 3,800 at Chesbrough Field House.
The Knights (28-5) will take on Stevenson Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the NIU supersectional at the Convocation Center in DeKalb. Stevenson handed previously unbeaten Fremd a 63-48 loss in the Lake Zurich sectional final Friday.
"Early on I thought we took their best punch," said interim South Elgin coach Steve Szpejnowski, subbing again for first-year head coach Matt Petersen, who was suspended by the IHSA on Tuesday after it was learned the Storm played one too many regular-season games.
"We've learned to do that through the course of the season and fight back. But apparently that wasn't their best punch. They had a little extra kick in them at the end."
Senior Darius Wells led the Storm with 23 points and sophomore Matt Smith scored 22 while fighting off an ankle sprain that occurred early in the second quarter until it finally drove him to the bench for good late in the fourth.
The Storm (18-15), a No. 4 regional seed, didn't let the early deficit or the pressure of the program's first sectional final appearance get to them. Instead they battled back with an 8-2 run to close the first quarter down 24-17, then closed the gap to 40-39 at halftime on the strength of a 22-16 second quarter that was led by 7 points each from Smith and Wells and 6 from 6-foot-8 sophomore Tyler Hankins, who also had 5 of his 9 rebounds in the quarter.
The momentum of a Smith basket with 12 seconds left in the half and then a defensive stop carried into the third quarter as South Elgin, with its massive fan base getting louder with each basket, came out on an 11-0 run to start the period. Smith started it and finished it, the Storm defense helped Auburn to 4 turnovers, and with 5:15 left in the third quarter South Elgin had a 50-40 lead and the upset was in the making.
"Give them an awful lot of credit," said Auburn coach Bryan Ott of the Storm. "South Elgin has been on a real roll and they didn't fear anything. I thought we looked a little panicked when they took the lead. But what I'm most proud of is how we responded when we got down 10."
After the teams traded two 3-pointers each and Auburn added a basket from junior Antoine Pittman in between, the Storm still led 56-48 with 3:19 left in the third. But the Knights went on an 8-0 run to tie the game before South Elgin was able to close the quarter on a 5-2 spurt and led 61-58 going to the fourth.
"We had all the momentum at that point," Szpejnowski said.
But Auburn opened the final 8 minutes on an 8-2 run to take a 66-63 lead. Then, with 5:37 left in the game, Smith went down on the baseline and had to be helped off the court. Over the next 2:23, the Knights hit the stunned Storm with a 6-0 blitz to lead 72-63 with 3:38 left and South Elgin couldn't get closer then 7 the rest of the way.
"We gave them everything we had," said Szpejnowski. "We used every (defense) I had. It worked for a little bit and we were able to get some turnovers and capitalize but we got a little worn down at the end.
"Matt is one of our primary ballhandlers and losing him it took away one of our main scorers. That really hurt us."
Junior Nylek Cobb led five Auburn players in double figures with 19 points. Pittman added 18, junior Laytwan Porter had 16, senior Malik Minor 13 and senior Zavious Hoover 10. The Knights shot 27 of 51 for the game including 7-for-20 from 3-point range. They also went 22 of 31 from the free-throw line.
The Storm finished 26 of 53 shooting but just 11 of 19 from the line. South Elgin did win the rebounding battle 30-23.
"The beginning of the game we did a good job of coming back but at the end of the game we didn't know what to do," said Wells. "Our main point guard went down and we didn't know what to do. But we picked it up as a team and came together and made this run. Nobody thought we'd be playing Rockford Auburn for the sectional championship."
Smith added 4 assists and 6 rebounds and was 4-for-8 from 3-point range.
"I'm real proud of our effort," he said. "We left it all on the floor. We played as hard as we could and we weren't even supposed to be here. We're not satisfied. We're going to come back tomorrow and work hard to get back here and further next year."