By Randy Whalen
For the Bugle
Since the Illinois High School Association Boys Basketball Tournament began 110 years ago there have been 17 undefeated state champions.
Bolingbrook will not be the 18th.
The Raiders had won their first 23 games of the season, but they didn’t complete an undefeated regular season. That’s because a final rally fell just short last weekend and Bolingbrook lost 65-64 to Lincoln-Way East on Friday, Feb. 17 in a SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue Division battle in Frankfort.
Sam Shafer scored a career-high 30 points and added a game-high 13 rebounds for Lincoln-Way East (18-10, 5-4), which celebrated Senior Night and finished undefeated at home (8-0) on the season and gave registered its second highest win total in school history behind the 19-win team in the 2002-03 season.
Nana Akenten (22 points, 9 rebounds) paced Bolingbrook (23-1, 8-1), which played without 6-foot-6 senior forward Malik Binns, who was “banged-up” according to coach Rob Brost. The Raiders, who had already clinched the SWSC Blue title, placed third in the state in Class 4A two years ago. They came in not only ranked No. 1 in the state, they were ranked in the top 20 in the Nation.
But Brost kept the whole thing in perspective. State championships aren’t won in February.
“It’s fine,” he said. “If you would have told me before the season that we’d be 23-1, I would have signed up for that. We don’t worry about the pressure [of being undefeated]. We’ve got guys banged up [including Binns], but we just have to come out to play like we should.”
There were certainly spots where the Raiders played excellent basketball. But, in a a game of wild momentum swings, there were also moments they did not.
Lincoln-Way East led 65-56 when Shafer scored his final point of the night on a free throw with 1:29 to play in the game. But starting at the minute mark, sophomore guard Joseph Yesufu (4 steals) – who scored all 14 of his points in the second half and had 12 of them in the fourth quarter, hit back-to-back 3-pointers – the last with 49 seconds to play, to pull the Raiders within 65-62.
Junior guard Kaleb Thornton (11 points, 8 steals) made a big seal to give the ball back to the Raiders, who closed within the final margin of 65-64 on a rebound basket by sophomore forward Tyler Cochran (5 points) with 20 seconds to play. It was the Griffins 12th turnover of the fourth quarter after having eight in the previous three.
Dorian Aluyi (13 points, 7 rebounds), was fouled with 15.2 seconds left. But the East senior forward missed both free throws and the Raiders rebounded, but had no timeouts left. Cochran missed a shot and everyone went for the ball with a couple of tips toward the basket finally resulting in the ball going out of bounds to the ‘Brook with 1.5 seconds remaining.
East stood its ground on defense, and the Raiders nearly committed a 5-second violation before throwing a long inbound pass to Cochran nearly 30 feet away on the left wing. He got a good look at the shot, but it hit off the rim as time expired and many of the large Griffin student body stormed the court in celebration.
“This was an amazing game for us to beat the 19th-ranked school in the nation.” said Shafer, who is a junior guard. “It went down to the wire and this was great for our momentum that we beat the No. 1 team in the state.”
The final play didn’t exactly go the way Bolingbrook drew it up.
“We didn’t execute what we wanted,” Brost said of the final inbounds play. We tried to run a lob play, but East’s defense was very good and they took it away.”
Bolingbrook certainly looked like the top team in the state early on, jumping out to a 13-0 lead just over three minutes into the first quarter and extending that to 17-3 as Cochran converted an old-fashioned 3-point play with 3:41 left in the opening quarter.
But 16 seconds later junior guard Sam Coverick scored his only points of the game on a 3-pointer. That proved to be an important basket as it seemed to spark the Griffins and started a 9-0 run. Still Bolingbrook led 21-12 after one quarter.
Down 24-14 just over a minute into the second quarter, junior guard Joey Buggemi (7 points) scored two points and Shafer had 11 points – including a 4-point play with 26.6 seconds left in the first half to cut the Raider advantage to 29-27 at halftime.
Five different Lincoln-Way East players contributed in a 12-2 burst to open the third quarter for a 39-31 lead with 3:32 left in the quarter. But Akenten, a senior forward, scored 10 points – including a 3-pointer just before the third quarter buzzer, to tie the game at 43-43 after three.
But Bolingbrook’s momentum was short lived as Aluyi and Shafer each scored seven points in a 14-0 blitz that opened the fourth quarter. Shafer capped off the run and sent the Griffin fans into a tizzy by converting a rebound basket off his own miss for a 57-43 lead with 4:49 to play in the game.
But about a minute before that, with 5:42 left in the game, Aluyi nailed a 3-pointer. That gave him a thousand points in his varsity career, which started at Lincoln-Way North before he moved to East when North closed at the end of the last school year.
“We just had to stay together and put points together,” Aluyi said. It’s just exciting to beat a great Bolingbrook team. I love going up against Nana [Akenten]. He’s my favorite player to go up against, he gets me ready for the next level.”
The Raiders, who also received eight points and seven rebounds from senior center Brandon Lawani, started chipping away when Yesufu scored on a layup with 4:07 remaining. Those were the first of 21 points over the next span of 3:47. But in the end East hung on for the 1-point win.
We pushed very well at the end, but it shouldn’t have come down to that,” Broast said. “We didn’t attack the rim and missed a number of chances to score points. Win or lose, our thoughts were to go back to practice and try to get better.
“I’m proud of the way the guys fought back, but give East credit. They’re undefeated in their building for a reason, they’re good. Still this is a blip on the radar, we’ll be fine.”
The postseason opens next week and the Raiders are the top seed at the Class 4A Lincoln-Way East Sectional. They open play in the Sandburg Regional on Tuesday, Feb. 28 against the winner of the Yorkville – Lincoln-Way West game from the night before. The regional title game is slated for Friday, March 3 at 7 p.m.
The Griffins are seeded No. 6 in the sectional, but if they can pull of an upset in the regional – likely against No. 3 seeded and host Joliet Central, they will get to host the sectional on their home court.