CL South nets 1st regional title in 21 years
Crystal Lake South coach Matt LePage would have preferred if the second half of Saturday's Class 3A Belvidere regional final against Freeport was similar to the first.
The Gators held the Pretzels to only 14 points in the first half on 6-of-19 shooting, but things picked up considerably from there.
Top-seeded South, however, remained steadfast in its mission to do something it had not done in 21 years. The Gators didn't back down, knocking down 17 of 21 free throws in the last eight minutes and holding off fourth-seeded Freeport 69-58 to win their first regional championship since 2002.
"These guys are a special group," said LePage, now in his 11th season. "It's as connected as a group since I've been here. It's hard to get here. And when you're here you've got to find ways to win. Freeport wouldn't go away. Our guys had to go out and win it."
The Gators (25-8) advance to face Marmion in the first of two Burlington Central sectional semifinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday. South has won only one sectional title before in 1983.
Senior guard Cooper LePage, Matt LePage's son, scored a team-high 22 points, followed by sophomore guard AJ Demirov with 18.
The Gators shot 80% (28 of 35) from the free-throw line, a few points higher than their season average of about 76%. It was clear South wasn't about to let Freeport (14-17) come all the way back and take a potential title away.
"This win was for everybody before us, all the players since 2002," said Cooper LePage, who will play next year at NCAA Division II Northern Michigan. "I played for all of them today. Every single player that came in contributed and played a solid all-around game.
"This is what we've been playing for since the fifth grade. This moment right here. We couldn't have done it with a better group of guys."
South looked to be well in control, holding a 48-33 lead after a steal and score from Cam Miller to begin the fourth quarter. But Freeport senior guard Elijah Richmond started to make life difficult on South, pouring in 15 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth.
Richmond hit a key 3-pointer with 3:05 left to cut the lead to 56-47 and then added two free throws to trim it to seven. The Gators, though, stopped any comeback with a stellar performance at the free-throw line, with nine of their last 11 points coming at the free-throw line.
Demirov, who banged his knee in the first quarter and didn't come back until the last few minutes of the second, made all 10 of his freebies down the stretch.
"It's a special feeling," Demirov said. "It's especially a good feeling to go out and do it with these guys. They're all like my brothers. We've just got to keep playing for each other and keep trusting each other."
Brady Schroeder added eight points for South, Zach Peltz and James Carlson had five apiece, and Christian Rohde tossed in five. Jaeden Marion scored 12 points for Freeport and Dedric Macon had nine.
Freeport coach Tee Jay Jackson said a key part of his team's game plan was to frustrate Cooper LePage.
"We knew he was going to try and get to the hole and try and use his strength," Jackson said. "And I thought we neutralized him for a little bit. We frustrated him. He had four fouls. We knew we weren't going to shut him down, but we just wanted to neutralize him."
South now will try and do something it hasn't done in 40 years: win a sectional title.
A win on Tuesday against Marmion could set up a possible matchup against Fox Valley Conference rival Burlington Central, the sectional's other No. 1 seed, in the championship.
"We were second to Burlington [in the FVC], and they've got a [heck] of a team," Matt LePage said. "We knew to get a piece of something, we had to win the regional. You could just tell they were going to do it. To our credit, we came out and played a very good championship game. ... You don't know how you're going to act emotionally in these moments, but these guys wanted it."