Downers Grove South's boys basketball team hasn't made things easy all season, so why start now?
After a roller-coaster ride through most of their 28 games, the Mustangs regrouped to claim a share of the West Suburban Gold title with Friday's 58-48 victory over visiting Willowbrook, which came in trying to win the outright title for the second time in three years.
Instead of the Warriors (24-3, 9-3) being on top alone, Friday's result created a trio of Gold champions. Downers South (18-10, 9-3) wins for the second straight year, while Hinsdale South (17-10, 9-3), a Friday winner over Proviso East, grabs a piece of its first Gold title.
"We were surprised we lost a couple early in the season and didn't know if we'd have a chance to win it," said Downers South senior forward T.J. Clifford. "But we knew we were only going to have one shot at it, so we were going to leave it all on the floor. That's what we did."
Friday's win means Downers South will play WSC Silver champion Oak Park in Wednesday's first-place crossover game. The Mustangs hovered near the .500 mark after a loss to Willowbrook in late January, but they've since won seven of eight games.
Willowbrook, which plays Downers Grove North on Tuesday, may be disappointed with having to share the title with two other teams, but the overall body of work still crosses off another goal on the season checklist.
"We set our goals at the beginning of the season to win our Thanksgiving (tournament), win Christmas, win Martin Luther King, and we've won conference," said Warriors coach Chris Perkins. "We're still hitting the checkmarks and reaching all of our goals. Now our next goal is regionals."
There were 10 lead changes and five ties when a pair of Freddie Clay free throws put the Warriors ahead for the last time at 43-42 with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter. Downers South unleashed a 10-1 run to seize control, then clinched the win with four straight free throws by Dylan Kaczmarek and Clifford in the final minute.
Clifford scored a game-high 19 points, knocked down four of the Mustangs' 10 3-pointers, dunked twice and grabbed 8 rebounds. Denis Alibegovic tallied 12 of his 15 points in the second half.
Ethan Schuemer had 14 points and 9 rebounds for Willowbrook. Matas Masys hit three 3-pointers on his way to 11 points.
"It's a long way to go and it's hard," said Downers South coach Kris Olson. "It was up and down, and at a point in the season the expectations got to them. And we've overcome that."
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