Downers Grove North's thoughts with Dunlap in win at Downers Grove South
Sema'j Henderson and his Downers Grove North teammates on Friday ended the longest regional championship drought in program history with a performance that was as cathartic as it was dominant.
On an emotional night inside a packed gymnasium, the Trojans routed rival Downers Grove South on its home court. The 65-42 victory gave Downers North (22-11) its first regional title since 2002 and a berth in the Class 4A Bartlett sectional semifinals, where the Trojans will play Lake Park on Wednesday.
Trey Boston tallied a game-high 20 points, Henderson had 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists, and fellow senior guard Collin Reed added 11 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks for the Trojans, who did it all for the one person who couldn't be there.
One week after Beth Dunlap, the star setter on Downers North's girls volleyball team, died after being struck by a car outside the school's front door, fans from both Downers North and Downers South wore red T-shirts with "Beth Strong" on the front.
"We came out playing for one person and we got this regional championship for her," Henderson said. "We wanted to win this for her.
"We're playing with the strength of her and Jesus Christ. I think that brought us closer.
"It was like we had to do it. We felt like this was a must win and this is the best feeling of my life right now."
Justin Eagins sank a 3-pointer to give Downers South (23-8) a 5-2 lead, but after that it was all Trojans. The visitors and self-proclaimed underdogs scored the next 9 points, part of a 20-7 run that shocked the home fans into silence.
The Mustangs stayed within 27-19 at halftime, but Downers North shot 80 percent in the third quarter to take command. The Trojans outscored Downers South 20-7 in the period and led 49-26 after a Henderson free throw with 6:41 left in the fourth quarter.
"It was pure heart from the opening jump," Henderson said. "We felt like they couldn't match our intensity.
Downers North coach Jim Thomas, whose team shot 51 percent from the floor, 80 percent from the line and outrebounded Downers South 32-20, had never seen such intensity from his players.
"They're locked in right now and playing with a lot of passion," Thomas said. "There's been a lot going on in the community so, I don't know, maybe there's somebody looking down on us. But they're sure playing at another level that we haven't seen."
For all the offensive firepower the trio of Henderson, Boston and Reed brought to bear, it was Downers North's defense that really stole the show. Eagins led Downers South with 12 points, all on 3-pointers, but had just 3 points in the second half. The Mustangs' other star guard, Wes Hooker, was held scoreless until the third quarter and finished with 4 points.
"Give them all the credit in the world," Downers South coach Kris Olson said. "They took us out of every single thing that we needed to do and our kids competed and play hard, but they were better than us tonight and Jim deserves a great amount of the praise. They were outstanding."
Indeed, the entire all-senior starting lineup produced for Downers North. Connor Ilyavi added 8 points and 8 rebounds, including 5 points in the decisive third quarter, and Ryan Featherstone made his only shot and both free-throw attempts.
"We were all so excited to come out here and play," Ilyavi said. "That was all heart.
"With the events that happened earlier, we did that for Beth. It was all for Beth."