East Aurora edges Larkin in UEC semis
Thursday night's game may have been "only" the Upstate Eight tournament, and not March Madness in the traditional sense.
There may have been only 25 socially distanced fans in the stands, but none of that mattered to Larkin and East Aurora.
Playoff intensity was definitely in the air at the Palace.
The Tomcats prevailed in a back and forth game, 52-48 in the UEC semifinal. They will face the Bartlett at 4 p.m. Saturday for the title while Larkin plays Streamwood for third place.
"Without a doubt [that was] the most intense game we've been a part of all year," said Larkin coach Deryn Carter. "I think they would say the same thing. In the big scheme of things, happy that we got a lot of our returners next year to get that experience in a postseason game that has that type of energy and effort."
Damari Wheeler-Thomas led all scorers with 17 points for the Royals. Fernando Perez Jr. added 11 points to go with 5 rebounds and 3 blocks. DJ Jones hit three 3-pointers for 9 points.
The Tomcats attacked with fierce defensive pressure and crashed the boards to the tune of a 33-23 rebounding advantage.
Still, Larkin led 30-28 early in the second half. But East Aurora reeled off a 9-1 run, taking the lead for good at 33-30 on a Calvin Savage 3-pointer.
Larkin trailed just 46-44 and got the ball back with a chance to tie or take the lead, but turned it over. The Royals went without a shot on 3 of their next 5 possessions, but the Tomcats couldn't take full advantage.
It was still a one-possession game, 51-48, after Wheeler-Thomas's layup with 5 seconds to go. Larkin couldn't steal the inbounds pass, was forced to foul, and Ralph Clark made a free throw to ice it.
"The pace of the game was quick, and the problem with that is that sometimes when it helps you in your favor you've got to know when to slow down and try to take advantage of it," Carter said. "Sometimes it just got sped up and it didn't go our way."
Jacques Kelly had 11 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks for East Aurora. Jabian Acosta had 10 points and 9 rebounds, while Amarion Savage added 11 points for the Tomcats.
East Aurora led 9-4 early, but Larkin roared ahead with a 10-2 run. There followed 5 lead changes and 5 ties before East Aurora finally took the lead to stay.
The Royals led 26-23 at the break thanks to Jones' 3-pointer just before the buzzer.