Glenbard West seals the deal with Class 4A state championship
CHAMPAIGN -- Paxton Warden turned around in the final minutes, cast a glance at four other Glenbard West senior starters and waved his arms in salute.
The journey is complete.
A goal whose seeds were planted seven years ago while the boys were in grade school came to fruition Saturday night. Glenbard West finished a magical season in the same manner that they have done so all season -- in dominant fashion.
Glenbard West, No. 1 all season, led wire-to-wire in beating Young 56-34 to win the Class 4A championship at State Farm Center in Champaign. It is the program's first state championship.
"It definitely feels great," Glenbard West senior Caden Pierce said. "People have been talking about it for a long time, but we've been dreaming about it even longer, since we were in elementary school and middle school. That's when it started. To do, with these seniors, it's a dream come true."
The margin was Glenbard West's closest in seven playoff games, and the Hilltoppers' 30th by 20 or more points. They went undefeated against Illinois opponents, their only loss on a buzzer-beater to nationally ranked Sierra Canyon at Wintrust Arena.
The win cements Glenbard West (37-1), until this year known more for football, as one of Illinois basketball's greatest champions.
"For sure it's awesome," Glenbard West senior and Gonzaga recruit Braden Huff said. "Throughout the year there was definitely noise and chatter about that, but we knew it would mean nothing if we didn't win this game. We stayed focused throughout and stayed really determined to finally accomplish our goal. To be compared with other great teams, it's really special."
Huff had 19 points and 5 assists and Warden, on his future home court, scored a game-high 21 points for Glenbard West, which shot 57.9%.
Huff, like he did in the Hilltoppers' previous win over Young, 74-59 in January, raised his play to another level on the big stage.
He scored and assisted on Glenbard West's first five baskets. Young's Xavier Amos, an NIU recruit, had no answer against the 6-foot-11 Glenbard West senior.
In the latter stages of the third quarter, Huff drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then went behind his back and dropped in a floater to end the third quarter with Glenbard West ahead 42-20.
"Especially in this game, being the last with these guys was for sure one that I was ready for and was not wanting to lose," said Huff, who shot 8 for 13 from the floor. "Big games like these I get amped up for. I think we all do. It's just been one heck of a ride."
It's a ride Huff looks forward to celebrating at noon Sunday back in Glen Ellyn.
"I think we need a fire truck," he said with a smile.
Warden was 4 for 4 in the first half, as the Hilltoppers led 25-16 at halftime. He finished 8 for 10 from the field, finishing his night in spectacular fashion, a sweet baseline drive and reverse layup.
A Warden dunk capped off a 13-0 run for a 44-20 Glenbard West lead early in the fourth quarter.
"It means a lot to play with these guys that I've been playing with for a while, and it's kind of a sad moment because it's our last moment together," Warden said. "But we ended in a good way. So I'm really excited."
Amos scored 14 points for Young, ranked second in the preseason. It is the first time since 2005 that the Chicago Public League did not have a state champion.
The Dolphins (25-10) shot just 25% in the first half and scored just four points in the third quarter. All-stater A.J. Casey, a Miami recruit, went without a field goal until the fourth quarter and scored 6 points.
"As a coach you want to dictate the terms of engagement, but that's the way they have all year long," Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. "We knew it would be a challenge to play against that length and that zone and it was. And it always was this year."
Slaughter also spoke about where Glenbard West belongs among the state's elite champs.
"This is my sixth trip here, and there have been a lot of great teams in this state, and they are a really good team," Slaughter said. "They're outstanding and they do things differently than anyone has done, and they do it well, and they've done it since fifth grade. We've played some really good teams and they are one of them."
Glenbard West coach Jason Opoka, for his part, was more proud of how his kids won, than where their place in history might be.
"It's so great to compare and do this and that, but I'm more proud of how they approached each and every practice to make every single one on that roster get better," Opoka said. "You have to enjoy and cherish those moments."