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If the surprise team of the Illinois boys basketball Class 4A Tournament had to go down, it was only fitting South Elgin went down fighting in its 83-73 loss to Rockford Auburn in the Elgin sectional title game Friday.
Athletic, fast, opportunistic Rockford Auburn (28-5) socked the Storm right in the kisser with a 22-9 push to open the game, but South Elgin (18-15) didn't let the Knights run off and hide as Auburn had done against so many other teams this season.
No, no, no, the Storm had come too far and overcome too much to go out with a whimper.
Not only did they claw back within 40-39 at halftime, thanks to 31 combined points from guards Darius Wells and Matt Smith and center Tyler Hankins, they thrilled the red-clad portion of a Chesbrough Field House crowd estimated at 3,800 by opening the second half on an 11-0 run to take a 50-40 lead.
The South Elgin student section rightfully went bananas. After all, the Storm had never reached a sectional final, let alone led one by 10 points in the second half. Storm Nation shook Chesbrough in a way rivaled recently only by the Bartlett student section in a 2010 supersectional against Waukegan and the Dundee-Crown students in a 2009 sectional title game against St. Charles North.
However, Auburn's smaller but enthusiastic crowd had reason to cheer in the end. Though gutty South Elgin took a 61-58 lead to the fourth quarter on the strength of sophomore Jake Amrhein's 3-pointer, the Knights opened the final period on a 14-2 run that changed the game's complexion and snuffed out South Elgin's fairy tale postseason.
Watching Auburn's decisive run was like watching an older sibling walk into the living room, take possession of the remote control and refuse to give it back.
Exhausted from their third-quarter push, the Storm didn't have the energy to climb out of yet another hole, particularly without Smith, who had to be helped off the court with a sprained ankle with 5:37 left in the game after scoring 22 points.
"We got a lot of energy there and we were taking it to them," said South Elgin senior guard Matt McClure, who scored 10 points in his final high school game. "I don't know. They hit a couple of shots, we missed a couple of shots and the momentum kind of swung their way. Then at the end we just were missing."
The Storm missed 4 of their 15 fourth-quarter shot attempts, but they didn't miss much else for the past two weeks, especially not the opportunity March Madness provides. South Elgin was a .500 team at the start of the tournament, one still coming together after openly feuding on the bench during a midseason game over number of touches.
Then lightning struck. The Storm won the St. Charles North regional with wins over Elgin, top seed Larkin and St. Charles East. Then they advanced one game further than the school's 2011 regional title team by beating Jacobs in an Elgin sectional semi. And they pulled that trick without first-year coach Matt Petersen, who was suspended for that game and the rest of the postseason because his team accidentally played one too many regular-season, nontournament games.
Not a bad epitaph for a team that lost 6 straight games between Jan. 16 and Feb. 7.
"I feel like we didn't do that good of a job during the season, but we picked it up as a team and we started being more unselfish," said Wells, who led the Storm with 23 points. "We came together as a team and we made this run. We shocked the world. Nobody thought that we would be playing against Rockford Auburn in the sectional championship."
Going forward, South Elgin has the potential to develop into a powerhouse. Yes, the program graduates the best player it has produced in its eight seasons of existence in Wells, but the current sophomore class is uber-talented. And we're not talking about the kids down on the sophomore team.
South Elgin's 2013-14 roster of 15 included six sophomores and a freshman, and they didn't play bit roles. Smith was the team's leading scorer, 6-foot-8 Tyler Hankins was its leading rebounder and Amrhein started most of the season and had his moments, like those 2 huge buckets in the overtime upset of Larkin.
Sophomore Andrew Kamienski sank 3-pointers in both sectional contests and is poised to replace McClure as the team's 3-point shooting specialist. Justin Howard is a ballhandling guard who can make 3-pointers and 6-1 forward Julian Lynch was a spark plug off the bench all year, particularly in the regional tournament. Freshman Logan Atkins is a promising shooter/scorer, a player Petersen worked into the rotation whenever possible.
"I remember at one point early in the season I looked out and we had four sophomores and a freshman on (the court) at one time," South Elgin interim coach Steve Szpejnowski said. "Obviously, your seniors are your leaders and they're the ones that lead the way for you. And they left a great legacy here. That's the thing -- they put South Elgin on the map.
"Now it's the responsibility and the job of these sophomores and these juniors to live up to that legacy and make is so that this is not their best season, to make it so that every season from here we get better and better and better. We absolutely have the promise and absolutely have some talent. We can make that run happen. I truly believe that and I think they believe it, too."
Oh, they believe it.
"It's definitely promising," Smith said. "We just have to keep working hard and, hopefully, we can do this again."
Only next time it will come as a surprise to no one.