MARENGO – Almost everything Crystal Lake Central did went right against Marengo early in Friday's championship game of the 68th annual E.C. Nichols Holiday Classic.
The Tigers (9-4) sank their first six shots. They shot 9 for 12 from the field in the first quarter and 15 of 26 in the first half. And on top of that, they didn't turn the ball over during the first 10 minutes.
It was a recipe for success, one that led to a 72-57 Central victory, and a large, shiny, silver basketball-shaped trophy a as a keepsake.
The victory was in stark contrast to the last time the two teams met several weeks ago, when the Tigers fell behind by as many as 20 points before mounting a furious rally, resulting in a five-point win. On Friday, the Tigers trailed only once, which happened on the game's opening possession.
"Winning this (16-team) tournament tonight was a huge confidence booster for us," Central junior guard C.J Lerum said. "Moments like this just validate why we put in so much hard work in practice. Results like this are what we're after."
Lerum scored a team-high 23 points, thanks in large part to his 5-for-8 effort from 3-point range. He scored 16 of his points in the first half, when Marengo (9-5) threw three different defenses – man-to-man and 2-3 and 3-2 zones – at the Tigers in an effort to keep the ball out of the hands of 6-foot-9 Central center Alex Timmerman.
The move was all part of Indians' coach Nate Wright's strategy.
"Going in to this game, we wanted to make someone other than Timmerman beat us," Wright said. "We knew they had two dynamic players who can put points on the board. If you would've told me we held Timmerman to just 13 points before the game, I would've guessed we would've won."
The strategy slowed Timmerman offensively early, but he still finished with 10 rebounds and five assists. Lerum added eight rebounds, and even though Marengo shot 50 percent from the field (11 for 22) in the first half, it still trailed by nine at intermission.
In the second half, when Marengo cut Central's lead to single digits midway through the fourth quarter, Central junior Deonta Dungey (22 points) took over by making three of his final four shots, plus three free throws, in the game's last eight minutes.
"Without the effort of Deonta, both offensively and defensively, we don't win this basketball game," Central coach Rich Czeslawski said. "What we've emphasized all year long is a complete team effort, not just one or two guys, and we got that in a big way this evening."
Czeslawski and Dungey then both applauded what they refer to as their "Bench Mob."
"It may seem like a small, trivial detail, but our Bench Mob has really been what's emotionally pushed us over the top in several games this year," Czeslawski said. "When you have guys on the bench, including some who are seniors shouting words of encouragement, yelling directions, and keeping our guys fired up ... man, I can't emphasize enough what a difference it makes."
Marengo, which starts five seniors and got a game-high 25 points from Blaine Borhart, made it to a Class 3A supersectional last season. The Indians know moral victories don't count in the standings, yet they believe they're good enough for another late-season run.
"I told our kids all I wanted was to be in a single-digit game in the fourth quarter, and we were only down seven with four minutes to go," Wright said. "Crystal Lake just made clutch plays down the stretch. Going forward, I don't see any reason why we can't be a top team in 3A again. Central is a top-notch Fox Valley Conference team, and I think the fact we held our own against them twice, despite them being a bigger school, speaks volumes."
STAR OF THE GAME
Crystal Lake Central, jr., G
Lerum had five 3-pointers and a team-best 23 points to go with his eight rebounds. He was 7 for 11 from the field.
59: Crystal Lake Central's shooting percentage from the field. The Tigers opened the game by making 12 of their first 15 shots.
AND ANOTHER THING …
Marengo senior Blaine Borhart scored a game-high 25 points, including 19 in the second half.
Crystal Lake Central 72, Marengo 57
Crystal Lake Central 23 15 14 20 – 72
Marengo 14 12 17 14 – 57
Crystal Lake Central (72)
Lerum 7 4-4 23, Dungey 8 3-5 22, Timmerman 6 1-2 13, Cassell 4 4-5 12, Haviland 1 0-0 2, Welder 0 0-1 0, Freund 0 0-0 0. Totals: 26 12-14 72.
Borhart 10 1-1 25, Schirmer 4 0-4 8, Kirchner 3 0-0 8, Rodriguez 3 0-1 6, Wascher 1 4-5 6, Fischer 2 0-0 4, Bertrand 0 0-0 0. Totals: 23 5-11 57.
3-point field goals: Crystal Lake Central 8 (Lerum 5, Dungey 3), Marengo 6 (Borhart 4, Kirchner 2).
Total team fouls: Marengo 18, Crystal Lake Central 16.
Fouled out: Marengo: Kirchner, Rodriguez. Technical fouls: Crystal Lake Central: Cassell, 2:12 of 1st quarter