Wauconda delivers emotional and historic victory
Before he inevitably surrendered it to equally giddy teammates, Jake Shanholtzer held tightly with two hands, through photo after photo, the basketball destined to end up in Wauconda's mostly empty trophy case.
Considering the Bulldogs senior forward had just grabbed a game-best 10 rebounds, the ball was secure.
"Hey, look," said Shanholtzer, looking at his arms, which sported goose bumps, as he stood on Belvidere North's court. "I got chills right now."
He and his teammates had much more.
By pulling away from Belvidere North in the fourth quarter en route to capturing a 54-41 win in the Class 3A regional final on Friday, Wauconda made school history twice on the same night. The regional championship was a first for the Bulldogs, and it also marked their school-record 22nd victory.
"We knew all about the school history going into this game," said senior guard Donovan Carter, wearing a net that had been cut down. "We knew that once that game started, we had to play like we have all season. We had to stick together, play together and play our hearts out. That's what we did."
Third-seeded Belvidere North (15-18) made No. 2 Wauconda (22-7) earn its trip to Rockford for Tuesday's 7 p.m. Boylan Catholic sectional semifinal against Wheaton St. Francis. The Bulldogs shot only 7 of 24 from the floor in the first half and went into the locker room tied at 18-18. Blue Thunder guard Caden Brannan limited the high-scoring Carter to 5 shots and 4 points.
"We just came out a little anxious," Wauconda junior point guard Benji Chung said. "We were just going and going, and we didn't set up anything that we wanted to. But over the course of the first half we started to pick it up. They're a tough team. They really pressured us. We just kept our composure throughout the game."
Garrison Carter and Chung started the second half by scoring on offensive rebounds. Wauconda never relinquished the lead, despite Belvidere North pulling within 36-34 midway through the fourth.
Donovan Carter's 2 free throws and Griffin Daun's three-point play hiked the Bulldogs' lead to 7. And when Belvidere North's Anthony Espensen (game-high 17 points) knocked down a 3-pointer to get the home crowd back into it, Daun answered by burying a left-corner 3 with 2:30 left.
Wauconda hit 7 of 8 free throws in the final 1:08 to secure the first postseason championship for the Bulldogs since they won back-to-back district titles in 1963 and 1964.
Carter finished with a team-high 14 points (5-of-11 shooting), Nick Bulgarelli scored 8 of his 12 points in the fourth, and Garrison Carter had 11 points. Chung scored only 4 points but hustled for 7 rebounds. Daun contributed 9 points coming off the bench.
"The kids fought, both ends," said coach Scott Luetschwager, whose 2017-18 Bulldogs lost in the regional final on their home court to Carmel. "We have preached for two years now, going back to the Nolan twins (Matthew and Andrew), that we play together as one group. We're a team, through and through. Everything that we do, we are doing it together. We talked even before this game that we are better as a team than we are as individuals."
Donovan Carter soaked it all in, then talked to coaches from Dominican University and Grinnell College after the historic game for his school.
"It means a lot to me," said Carter, the school's all-time leading scorer who set the team's single-season scoring mark in Tuesday's regional semifinal against Belvidere. "I've been working for this my entire life, working in the off-season, waking up at 5 in the morning, trying to get ready for this season. I wanted to make sure that this regional championship happened."
Wauconda was the only Lake County team dispatched to Belvidere for the state tournament, but the 75-minute drive didn't matter for the champions.
"It was a long drive," said Shanholtzer, who missed regional semifinal with a right sprained ankle. "We were in a zone. We were all listening to music."
The bus ride home was sure to be rocking.