Before the season even began the Larkin boys basketball team was knocked off its feet with the devastating news that its star player Christian Negron would be lost for the entire year with a torn ACL.
The Royals easily could have let that keep them down, but instead they chose to rise. There were stumbles along the way in the regular season, but in the playoffs the Royals have hit their stride and on Friday night reached a destination they never gave up on.
In dominating fashion host Larkin captured its own Class 4A regional championship with a 71-51 win over Bartlett.
Jalen Shaw and Anthony Lynch each scored 22 points to lead the Royals. Shaw also had 15 rebounds and 3 blocks.
"The expectations didn't change when Christian went down," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. "We were just going to have to find another way. Having Christian was going to allow the younger guys to grow into their roles while we were winning. When we lost him those guys got thrown in and they had to learn to win on their own and they have. We took some lumps, but we always felt we had the potential to get to this point."
The Royals won with what has become their trademarks -- defense and rebounding. The 6-10 Shaw wasn't the only one grabbing rebounds. As a team the Royals had a 42-19 advantage on the boards. Larkin also held the Hawks to just 22 of 60 (37 percent) shooting from the field.
"We are really playing defense at a championship level," Carter said. "It's been about a young team willing to accept coaching. They show attention to detail. Around the beginning of January we kind of reassessed our defense and felt we were gambling too much and trapping. We felt we would be better off focusing on our half court defense and the kids have really taken that half court defense to a whole other level."
A 13-0 run by the Royals at the end of the first quarter and the start of the second quarter put them in command with a 21-9 lead. The Royals were still up 30-20 at the half. Lynch set the tone on offense by taking the ball to the basket. He had 12 first half points with 8 coming on drives to the basket and 4 on putbacks.
Lynch, who transferred from South Elgin, was hoping this day would come.
"I had pictured this happening," Lynch said. "Now it's like a dream come true. It was really exciting to be able to do it on the big stage. It has taken everyone pitching in and coming together as a team to get this far."
The Royals didn't let off the gas in the second half. Bartlett pulled to within 43-36 late in the third quarter, but could get no closer. Shaw finished strong with 14 points in the second half including a couple of breakaway slam dunks.
"I've never felt like this," Shaw said. "It's a great feeling. We knew they were a good team and that we were going to have to play defense and crash the boards. I was determined to get every ball I could."
Bartlett (17-13) made quite a run this season with a very young team that had very little previous varsity experience.
"There is no question these kids far exceeded my expectations," Bartlett coach Jim Wolfsmith said. "I am really proud of what they were able to accomplish. They learned a lot this year and made incredible progress, so there is a lot to look forward to next year. Tonight we just ran into tough Larkin team that played really well and had the home cooking working for them."
Austin Gates had 24 points to lead the Hawks in scoring. Ben Tompson had 13 points, but was battling foul trouble most of the way.