The boys basketball season may be in its infancy but host St. Charles North looked all grown up in Friday's 61-56 win over rival St. Charles East.
The North Stars saw their 11-point halftime lead erased by St. Charles East's 15-0 run to open the third quarter, but they regained a third-quarter lead on Kyle King's 3-pointer withe 2:06 left and never trailed the tense Upstate Eight River opener again.
"It was a huge team win," said St. Charles North junior guard Lucas Heflen, who scored 6 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. "I think it was a big bonding moment, especially after they came back."
Still, it came down to the final 30 seconds.
The Saints trailed 59-56 with possession when Justin Hardy sent a pass to Nate Ortiz in the corner. The 3-point attempt by Ortiz, who had already nailed a pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers, was a bit long. It caromed off the back of the iron and out of bounds but not before the official ruled the ball had been touched last by the Saints with 19.5 seconds left, much to their dismay.
The North Stars inbounded to Kyle King, who was fouled with 18.5 left. However, he missed the front end of the bonus, giving the Saints another chance.
St. Charles East (4-2, 0-1) called timeout with 7.6 seconds remaining. However, the ensuing inbounds pass intended for Hardy at the far side of the lane was intercepted by leaping 6-foot-4 senior Cade Callaghan. He was fouled with 7.6 seconds left and sank both free throws to seal the victory for St. Charles North (3-2, 1-0).
The North Stars benefitted from a balanced attack led by Heflen, Callaghan (14 points) and King (13 points, 8 rebounds). They used a 21-9 second quarter to take a 36-25 halftime lead, then weathered the third-quarter storm to prevail.
The Saints were led by senior Zach Robinson, who drained four 3-pointers as part of a game-high 21-point performance. Ortiz added 11 points while senior Justin Hardy was limited to 12 points.
"He's a great player. He's very athletic," King said of Hardy. "He can do everything in the game so we tried to force him to the (greatest) weakness that he had, so we tried to force him baseline, sideline and then help. On strong side we just covered him. We made sure he did not get the ball and once he did it was just full-on double and then rotate. It was a good job of rotating."
It's still early, but the North Stars were happy to get off on the right foot in the first UEC River game of the season.
"It's nice to beat your rival," St. Charles North coach Tom Poulin said. "It's a group we respect and a coaching staff we respect. It's never easy, so it's rewarding. Nothing worth celebrating and getting done is easy. This is why you go out for basketball, try out for the team. It's why you coach, it's why play. It's to play in front of a crowd like that. To come out on top, when you win a game like this, it's a little different from some of the others."
On the other side of the coin, the Saints intend to learn from the loss and improve as a result.
"I told our kids I liked our resilience in the second half down 11," St. Charles East coach Patrick Woods said. "It's so early in the season, a game of this magnitude, we didn't shoot the ball particularly well. We were 33 percent from (3-point range), 42 percent from (2-point range) and not good from the free-throw line (7 of 13). Credit North. They shot the ball well and played really well.
"I have a feeling we're going to see them two more times this year. They won the first one. Fortunately, we'll have them at home the second one and we'll have a lot of games between now and then to get better."
The Saints and North Stars meet again on Jan. 12 at St. Charles East.