Third try favors Lakes against Vernon Hills
Ethan Sage's ear-to-ear smile matched the enormity of the game and its significance.
"It's crazy in there," Sage said after exiting Lakes' locker room, where inside the fifth-seeded Eagles celebrated loudly after a stunning, come-from-behind, 45-39 win over top-seeded Vernon Hills in a Class 3A sectional semifinal. "Definitely better than the regional. When we won the regional (over No. 4 Richmond-Burton), we were excited. But I've never seen a locker room like that before at Lakes."
Tuesday night marked the first time that North Suburban Prairie Division rivals Lakes and Vernon Hills met in a sectional game. For Sage, it also was the first time he and his teammates had beaten Vernon Hills, which saw its best season ever end at 27-5 and on its home court, no less. The Cougars defeated the Eagles 74-64 and 56-45 during the regular season en route to capturing their first outright NSC Prairie championship.
"To try to beat Lakes three times isn't easy," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said after his program's first appearance ever in a sectional semifinal. "They're a formidable opponent. They have some seniors that we watched in football and basketball, and those kids just don't go away. They give great effort."
One of those football kids, senior forward Sage, led the way with a game-high 17 points, 9 rebounds and 4 steals, as Lakes (18-13) earned a berth in Friday's 7 p.m. sectional final against No. 3 St. Patrick, which upended No. 2 DePaul College Prep 70-47. Senior guard Jake Balliu (another football kid) added 11 points and 8 rebounds, while Hawaii-bound volleyball player Dalton Solbrig contributed 9 points and 8 rebounds.
"It feels good, I'll tell you that. Understatement," Lakes coach Chris Snyder, whose team has never won a sectional title, said with a wide smile. "To (win) against a really good team on their home floor, it speaks volumes about these guys."
Sam Rattner scored 8 of his team-high 11 points in the second quarter to help give Vernon Hills a 24-17 lead at halftime, despite Balliu's long, buzzer-beating 3-pointer. The Cougars led by the same margin, 36-29, after three.
"We talked at halftime, 'If you're going to go out, you got to go out swinging,' " Snyder said. "I think they embraced that."
Lakes opened the fourth quarter by scoring the first 7 points to pull even, despite missing 4 free throws. The Eagles took the lead on Solbrig's layup with 3:24 left, and then Sage speared a long rebound and drove the length of the floor for a layup and 3-point edge. Lem Turner (6 points, 8 rebounds) got Vernon Hills within 40-39 with 2:24 to go. But Balliu and David Milostan each sank 2 of 2 foul shots in the final minute, and another free throw by Sage (10 of 16 from the line) finished the scoring.
Vernon Hills shot just 1 of 13 from the floor in the fourth quarter and 25 percent (14 of 57) for the game against Lakes' man-to-man defense. Benett Haviland and Jordan Mercure helped limit high-scoring Robby Nardini to 9 points and only 6 shots.
"They're a really good defensive team," Nardini said of the Eagles. "If you check all their scores, it's all really low-scoring games. We knew it was going to be tough. Their help defense was great. They did what they needed to do."
The win was extra sweet for Sage, who missed the regular-season game at Vernon Hills with the flu.
"I wanted to get them bad in this one because they got me the past couple of times," Sage said. "Coming here, I knew the atmosphere was going to be great because it was a sectional game. Both teams' fans were outstanding. When you got the fans chirping in your ear and they know your name, it's definitely an exciting thing."