Huntley's special season ends in heartbreaking fashion
Uchenna Egekeze's half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the backboard and the Huntley senior's chin hit his chest. He looked down at the floor as he tried to process, in those adrenaline-filled final seconds, that the journey was over.
The journey ended with a 49-46 double-overtime loss to Cary-Grove in the Class 4A McHenry sectional semifinals. The Red Raiders had hoped to advance to Friday's sectional title game, and to keep their run alive as long as possible.
"There was a lot of hugging, a lot of crying," senior Ryan Sroka said. "We've got 10 seniors on the team, so it's going to be a hard couple days, for sure. We're all so close."
Five of the 10 seniors played varsity ball as sophomores two years ago: Egekeze, Sroka, Niko Mendoza, Hunter French and Ryan Crosby. That 2017-18 team went 6-23.
They all knew what Huntley was capable of. This was a program that won five regional titles in an eight-year span from 2006-07 to 2013-14. Egekeze watched his older brother, Amanze Egekeze, win three of those regional titles.
Sroka remembered going to the 2014 regional title game with Uchenna.
"Growing up we were always the program to beat," Sroka said. "It kind of went away for a little while. When we were in high school, we kind of always had that plan. We knew we had a good group of seniors, class of 2020. We always knew, we have to turn the program around."
Sroka and Egekeze first played against each other in first grade. As they grew up, they talked about bringing Huntley basketball back to where it had been.
Sroka said that, in a weird way, he's almost glad they went through the 6-23 sophomore season, because it matured the team. It provided them some adversity.
"It was a miracle if we won a game back then," Sroka said.
Huntley went 18-15 last season, a major improvement. This year's team finishes 27-7, tying the program record for wins.
"We're not, as coaches, a whole lot different [than in 2017-18]," coach Will Benson said. "We tweaked some things, X's and O's, but it's [the players'] hard work in the offseason and in-season that turned this thing back around. They left their mark."
The Red Raiders simply ran into a Fox Valley Conference foe who found a few more late baskets in the waning minutes of Tuesday's epic duel.
Afterward, Sroka was disappointed in his performance, but so proud of his teammates. Mendoza and DiFrancesca provided big buckets down the stretch.
"I didn't have nearly a great game at all, and so many guys stepped up," said Sroka, who scored four points. "That's kind of the moral of our season. Luke DiFrancesca playing a great game tonight, Ryan Vrugt, Ryan Crosby. People think it's just me and Uchenna, but you see tonight I just didn't have it and so many guys stepped up and kept us in it."
DiFrancesca scored 11 points, Vrugt had 10 and Crosby scored five.
When the Red Raiders play on the road, Benson reserves his postgame talk until after the bus ride home. He didn't say much to the team after the gut-wrenching loss, and Egekeze said the seniors couldn't find the words in the immediate aftermath. The locker room was quiet.
The players made their way through the crowd back toward the bus, glum looks all around.
"It's pretty sad right now, but we should really keep our heads up," Egekeze said. "We really got after it, it was a great game."