When hall-of-famer Gordie Kerkman stepped down as West Aurora boys basketball coach two years ago, he predicted the Blackhawks would endure a year of adjustment in 2015-16 before finding success again in 2016-17.
Indeed, the Blackhawks slipped to 8-18 last year in coach Brian Johnson's first season, but on Wednesday night West Aurora fulfilled Kerkman's prediction by holding off visiting Bartlett 66-63 to clinch the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division title outright.
Part of the former coach's optimistic view of the future was based on this year's current crop of seniors, who as sophomores won the UEC Valley title.
That group led the Blackhawks throughout the clincher. Travon Avery scored all 11 of his points in the first half, Caleb Siler led the way with 22 points and DaVion Cross made a key steal down the stretch before sinking 2 free throws that gave West Aurora (19-8, 9-1) a 64-60 lead with 20 seconds left.
"Trayvon was outstanding in the first half," Johnson said. "He really set the tone for us early, and then Caleb was Mr. Consistent. DaQuan (Cross) had some big rebounds and DaVion made some big free throws. And Nolan (Watts) contributed in the first half as well. All five seniors did a great job. We don't win 19 games and a conference championship without them, that's for sure."
However, Bartlett (16-11, 7-3) had one last chance to tie after Siler made the second of two free throws with four seconds left. Bartlett inbounded to junior Ben Tompson. He raced up court and got a decent look at the basket from just inside the volleyball line, but his shot didn't fall at the buzzer.
The miss ended a valiant push by the Hawks, who could have split the UEC Valley title with a win. They tied the game twice in the final 2:14 after trailing by 13 midway through the third quarter, the last time with 58 seconds left on a pair of Tompson free throws.
"You have to play together to beat good teams and I thought we did that in the fourth quarter," Bartlett coach Jim Wolfsmith said. "We played with passion, we played with emotion, we shared the ball and we found open teammates. And we hit some big shots. Unfortunately, so did they."
West Aurora shot 24 of 42 (57 percent), buoyed by a 68-percent shooting performance in the first half (15 of 22), which led to a 36-27 halftime lead.
The conference title is the first for West Aurora since winning the DuPage Valley Conference in 2006. It comes on the heels of the football program's UEC Valley title last fall.
"Conference champs in both seasons is a blessing," DaVion Cross said. "It doesn't happen very often, but I'm glad it happened our senior year."
Tompson led Bartlett with 20 points, sophomore guard Austin Gates scored 17, and junior guard Tomas Vikonis added 10.
"Senior Damian Virgen had 9 points and DaQuan Cross and Camron Donatlan each contributed 7 points for West Aurora.
South Elgin 70, West Chicago 56: Junior Noah Rohr nailed six 3-pointers en route to a game-high 20 points during an Upstate Eight Valley road win for the Storm. Collin Uveges poured in 15 points for South Elgin (18-10, 5-6) while Vince Miszkiewicz and Logan Atkins each had 10 points.
Cary-Grove 56, Hampshire 51: The Trojans (14-11, 9-6) benefited from 3 players in double figures to grab a Fox Valley Conference win over the Whip-Purs. Chris Johannsen led C-G with 17 points while Dan Clarke followed with 15 and Zach Beaugureau with 10. That offset a 23-point night from Tre Powell, who hit four 3-pointers, while all of JD Shaw's 12 points came off 3s for Hampshire (8-19, 5-10).
Class 2A, 1A postseason: The three Elgin private high schools opened the boys basketball postseason with wins Wednesday night.
Harvest Christian 72, Dakota 49: At the Class 1A Lena-Winslow regional, the top-seeded Lions (24-4) breezed to Friday's title game against the host Panthers thanks to Brennen Woods' 27 points, 16 rebounds and 4 steals. JJ Flores recorded 21 points and 5 steals while Andre White Jr. added 14 points and 4 steals.
Westminster Christian 63, Alden-Hebron 30: The Warriors (18-9) will seek a 4-peat of regional titles Friday after a Class 1A regional win over the Giants on their home floor. Ben Verslyus nearly beat A-H by himself with a game-high 28 points while Scott Graziano had 12. Westminster will play No. 3 Orangeville, which slipped by No. 5 Rockford Christian Life 70-68 in the nightcap.
St. Edward 71, Chicago Disney 50: In a Class 2A Northridge Prep regional win, the Green Wave were carried by Kelvin Cortez-Harvey's 35 points. St. Edward (14-15) will square off against regional host and the top-seeded Knights for Friday's championship.