The mental toughness Deryn Carter has demanded of Larkin basketball players since the day he returned to coach his alma mater in 2009 translated to a sectional championship in Algonquin Friday night.
The Royals were staggered after Rockford Jefferson drained three straight 3-pointers to slice an 11-point lead to 55-53 with 2:05 left in the game, but they didn't give in to doubt. They relied on their experience and remained focused.
Senior Anthony Lynch smartly drew an offensive foul as the J-Hawks attempted to tie the game with 1:31 left.
At the other end of the floor, he scrambled for a loose rebound under the basket after two Jalen Shaw misses, fought for possession and laid it in with 57 seconds left to stake the Royals to a 4-point lead.
Twenty seconds later Victor Perez corralled a long rebound after a missed 3-pointer and forwarded the ball to Shaw for the most satisfying breakaway dunk by a Larkin player since 2005, when the program won its last sectional title.
"We just said 'keep calm, man,' " Lynch said. "That's the best thing you can do when you're pressed, just relax and take your time. It's just unbelievable. It shows a lot about this team and how hard we work. This isn't easy, man. It isn't easy."
The unshakable Royals were aggressive down the stretch, making Carter equal parts proud and relieved. He questioned the mental fortitude of this group as recently as mid-Februrary following consecutive losses.
"We challenged them about five weeks ago after the Conant and St. Charles North games because we weren't mentally tough enough to go where we wanted to go," Carter said. "Man, have they responded. So tough mentally to just stay the course and keep trying to get stops. (Jefferson) hit tough shots; It wasn't like they were getting open looks. And then to finish the game the way we did, I'm just so proud of them."
The sectional title is Carter's first in nine years as Larkin coach. While he and the Royals (24-8) yearn for more than just trip to Tuesday's Class 4A NIU supersectional against Benet Academy (28-4), he also realizes how far they've come.
The program was in disarray when Carter took over in 2009-10. The Royals had gone 1-25 the previous season. It got worse before it got better. The new coach was forced to forfeit 7 games in his first season because of a certification oversight. Thus, his first team finished 1-26.
Then came the steady climb. The Royals won 4 games the following year and jumped to 16-12 in 2011-12, the first of seven straight winning seasons.
What have Carter and Larkin have accomplished since 1-26?
Fifteen straight wins against rival Elgin.
Four 20-win seasons in six years.
Three Upstate Eight River titles in six years.
Four regional titles in six years.
Consecutive sectional final appearances for the second time in school history.
And now the program's fifth sectional title, its first since 2004-05.
"He's definitely turned it around," said Loyola Rambler Christian Negron, a 2017 Larkin graduate on hand to support his former teammates. "I'm proud for him that he got his first sectional championship. It's something we've been chasing for awhile and we're not done. We're going to keep going."
Following his first sectional title as a coach, Carter looked back at the journey.
"When I got the job I had people that I trusted a lot that told me I was making a mistake. They told me I was making a professional mistake. I can't even put it into words, to be honest with you. To be a part of taking this program to a place that it's never been is a blessing. It's such a blessing, man. Such a blessing."
The coach's voice began to crack as the weight of the moment caught up with him. His eyes began to well as he watched his players celebrate with the sectional plaque.
Not even the mentally tough are immune to emotion.
"Such great kids," he added. "Such great kids."