Grayslake Central surges early to beat CL South in Hinkle finale
Grayslake Central's Sam Cooper calmly stood at the free-throw line and sank two free throws with 6.2 seconds remaining to start the celebration.
The Rams, who fought through host Jacobs, Bartlett, outlasted Barrington in a four-overtime semifinal, had held off Crystal Lake South 56-51 in the championship of the Hinkle Holiday Classic Friday night at the Eagles' Nest.
Central cruised out to a big lead in the first half with a 17-0 run, then had a battle on its hands as South surged back in the second half.
Ultimately, that hole was too deep for the Gators.
"This is such a well-run tournament. It's so fun to bring your team here," Central coach Brian Centella said. "I was so proud of our guys to show some toughness. Our road to Crystal Lake South was pretty tough. That was a gantlet. For us to hold on, I was really happy."
Cooper led the Rams, 13-1 with 13 consecutive wins, with 19 points and three 3s. Dennis Estepp and Jake Gibson, who both earned All-Tournament honors, scored 11 each. Gibson grabbed 17 rebounds and had five blocked shots.
The Rams and Gators were tied at 8-8 with 2:57 left in the first quarter when Central scored 17 consecutive points.
"We were just getting stops. All year we've been a defensive-oriented team, that's our mindset from the jump," Cooper said. "On that 17-0 run we really did that. We know we can score, but the defense really got us into that.
"We felt we were the better team coming in and we just had to keep pushing until that clock hit zero."
South closed the half with a 7-0 run that gave it some life. The Gators' Cooper LePage did not score in the first half, but was on fire in the second, hitting five shots in a row, three of which were 3s.
"It was strange. We got into a very, very slow, methodical rhythm, that's not really the way we play," Gators coach Matt LePage said of the drought. "Credit to our guys for fighting back and not quitting. It's hard to get over the top. They're a quality team and we just spotted them too many early. We had a really rough second quarter."
South trailed 45-34 after three quarters, but guard AJ Demirov sparked the fourth-quarter comeback with three steals and 12 of his game-high 24 points.
"Just a lot of energy. We were ready to go after halftime," Demirov said. "It's a good team, but I think we could have won that game, but we had that bad start."
Demirov hit a 3 with 55 seconds remaining to make it 52-48. He then hit another with 7.6 to go, making it 54-51. But Cooper made his two double-bonus free throws for the final margin.
"We made our run, they made theirs," Centella said. " At the key moments we made some free throws, made some tough shots. And defensively we got the job done."