If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, for Conant boys basketball coach Tom McCormack, it was quite a pretty sight -- regardless of the low score.
His Cougars outlasted Lake Park 33-23 in a deliberate and physical matchup Wednesday in the Class 4A sectional semifinal at Robert Morris University in Arlington Heights.
Conant (27-4), the No. 2 seed in the sectional, will meet top-seeded and unbeaten Fremd (29-0) in Friday's final at 7 p.m. Fremd won the two prior meetings with Conant this season.
Conant had all it could handle on Wednesday from a Lake Park team that the Cougars had beaten 55-40 on Jan. 31.
"We really knew it would be their game plan coming in," McCormack said. "They went into Prospect and accomplished there what we couldn't. We got exactly what we expected from them."
Lake Park didn't slow the pace down to a crawl, but the Lancers were patient offensively. By doing that, they kept the Cougars from getting off to the races with their offense.
"I thought the key was us going to man-to-man from our traditional zone defense," McCormack said. "We were very concerned about shutting their offense down. We were able to keep them from scoring, but also from keeping them from having those possessions so long."
Conant appeared early to not even worry about the pace of the game.
Led by 6-foot-8 Ryan Davis, Conant was able to go inside at will.
The Cougars opened with an 8-0 run, with Davis scoring 6 of those points. Davis and Conant continued the onslaught as the Cougars built a 12-2 lead with 52 seconds left in the first quarter on a layup by Davis.
"We wanted to use our size," said Davis, who finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds. "We wanted to make sure we got the ball into the post and dominate inside, and I thought we did that."
Lake Park was then able to rally when Davis picked up his second foul and went to the bench early in the second quarter.
Conant then struggled on the offensive end, with 3 consecutive turnovers. Buoyed by their defense, the Lancers went on a 9-0 run to close to 12-11 with 3:32 left in the first half on a basket by Andrew Vega.
The teams became even more deliberate on offense from there, with Conant scoring the final 4 points of the half to lead 15-11 at the break.
Lake Park broke fast in the second half thanks to the play of Garrett Fant, who finished with 12 points. Fant had a short jumper and then banked in a 3 from the top of the key as the Lancers had a 16-15 lead with 6:43 left in the third quarter.
That's when Conant's man-to-man define began to frustrate the Lancers. Conant held Lake Park scoreless for the balance of the quarter, forcing 7 missed shots and 3 turnovers.
Jimmy Sotos got the Conant offense into high gear, making a sweet pass for a crashing dunk that turned into a 3-point play for the Cougars, who regained the lead for good. After a basket by Davis, Sotos had a pair of driving baskets as the Cougars ended the quarter on a 9-0 run to lead 24-16.
"We knew they were going to fight back against us," said Sotos, who finished with 10 points and 4 assists. "We adjusted on offense and began to spread out a little more. I was just picking my spots and taking advantage."
Lake Park (15-15) was never able to get closer than 5 points from there, ending a magical run for the Lancers. Lake Park far exceeded its No. 11 seed and further enhanced its reputation as a team to be respected -- especially in the postseason.
"I am super proud of our guys," Lake Park coach Josh Virostko said. "We competed and made them have to earn it. That's what we wanted to do."
Virostko said that his team, which shot 29 percent (8-for-28), just couldn't get anything to fall.
"Our margin for error is so small," said Virostko, "that if we go cold at all, that is it."