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HOOPESTON — Coming out of the locker room last Friday night, seniors Chase Patton and Louis Acklin quickly ceded the first chance for a postgame interview to Nate Michael.
“I guess that’s because I’m the youngest one,” the St. Joseph-Ogden junior guard said with a laugh.
Or maybe Patton and Acklin were just following the theme the Spartans boys basketball team established during their 54-27 win against Bismarck-Henning in the Class 2A Hoopeston Area Regional championship game.
Defer to Michael’s outside shooting, and good results ensued.
“We have goals for ourselves, and we have expectations for ourselves,” said Michael, who led all scorers with 16 points and made 4-of-8 from three-point range. “We respect the ones that are outside our locker room, but to be honest, the ones in our locker room are what really matter to us. One of our goals was to get a regional championship, and we accomplished that.”
For the second straight season, the Spartans (26-3) celebrated a regional championship. SJO played Kankakee Bishop McNamara on Wednesday night in a 2A Unity Sectional semifinal game, but results were not available at press time.
“It’s a big deal,” SJO head coach Brian Brooks said of winning a regional championship. “I think it’s one of the hardest parts of the postseason because that’s where the pressure is at, (and) they talked after they got the plaque that they’re not done.”
If SJO can get past Bishop McNamara, the Spartans would face either Monticello or Clifton Central at 7:30 p.m. this Friday in the sectional championship game, with a spot in next Tuesday’s super-sectional game at the University of Illinois-Springfield on the line.
The Spartans took control in the second half against Bismarck-Henning (26-7).
The Blue Devils wanted to dictate the tempo and offset SJO’s ability to get out in transition.
For one half, the approach worked, with SJO only ahead 6-4 at the end of the first quarter and 12-10 with 4 minutes, 5 seconds left in the second quarter.
“We wanted to limit the possessions of the game,” Bismarck-Henning head coach Jon Clapp said. “We knew they like to get up and down the floor and spread you out. We’re not the kind of ballclub that gets up and down the floor. We wanted to really try and work the ball to get it inside. I thought in the early part, we did a good job of that. We missed some layups there early, and at the beginning of the second half, we had some layups we missed. That kind of set the tone for the rest of the half.”
Neither team scored in the final three minutes of the first half after SJO junior guard Dalton Walsh converted a layup to put SJO up 16-10. The second half, however, was different. Much different.
Michael extended SJO’s lead to 24-11 with 4:56 left in the third quarter when he was fouled on a 3-pointer he made. While the left-handed shooting Michael failed to convert the rare four-point play, Bismarck-Henning never cut its deficit to fewer than double digits the rest of the game.
“We knew that if they controlled the tempo it was going to be a tough game,” Michael said. “We talked about that at halftime. We tried to speed the game up in the second half, and we pulled away there.”
SJO turned in a shooting clinic in the second half. After only making 5-of-23 (22 percent) from the field in the first half, the Spartans were 16-of-23 (70 percent) in the second half.
“We knew we didn’t play as well in the first half as we should have,” said Patton, who wound up with 13 points. “We just missed some shots we knew we were going to make in the second half. We came out the second half and knocked them down.”
A layup by senior forward Corbin Hesterberg in the closing seconds of the third quarter increased SJO’s lead to 34-18 and the rout was on.
“We had hit some shots in the third quarter, but we hadn’t executed great,” Brooks said. “To finish the quarter like that, we stress that a lot. They’re big momentum swings, and it was really good. He was our second option out of that play, and for him to go up and finish at the rim was really good because we hadn’t been doing that.”
Acklin (eight points) and junior forward Brent Schluter (eight points, eight rebounds) also chipped in offensively for the Spartans. Brooks was pleased with the defensive efforts from Hesterberg and Woller, who held Bismarck-Henning guard Austin Toler to only three points.
Chase Connelly scored Bismarck-Henning’s first 11 points of the game — the Blue Devils did not have another player score until Wilde Garowski scored on an offensive rebound putback with 3:34 left in the third quarter — and finished with that total as foul trouble plague him in the second half.
“Our focus was just to guard like we’ve been guarding every day in practice,” Acklin said. “If we guard like we came out and did (Friday), we knew we were going to be successful.”
Of course, it elps having someone like Michael break down Bismarck-Henning’s matchup 2-2-1 zone with outside shooting.
“He’s a competitive winner,” Brooks said. “He plays to win every possessio. He was sitting on the bench at halftime, and I just told him, ‘Keep shooting. Get your feet set and keep shooting.’ We’ve got tons of confidence in him. When his feet are set, he’s awfully good, and he hit a couple big shots there in the second half.”
According to Michael, he was just fulfilling his role.
“We got good ball movement in the first half, and I knocked two down,” Michael said. “By the third quarter, we just decided we were going to go inside-out. Whenever we got it to Brent and in the middle of the lane with Corbin, too, they collapsed, and the three was wide open.”
But players can have wide-open shots all game and not make them. That wasn’t the case last Friday for Michael.
“He works hard every day in practice,” Acklin said. “He’s the first one in the gym and the last one out getting in extra shots all the time. It really pays off in games like this because he hits big, clutch shots for us. We appreciate having him on our team.”
n Notes: SJO opened its postseason with a 79-30 victory against Oakwood last Wednesday in a regional semifinal game at Hoopeston Area. Schluter led the Spartans with 17 points while Acklin added 11. SJO — which led 41-16 at halftime — also received eight points apiece from Michael and Walsh.