ELMHURST – There was no once-in-a-lifetime shot at the end, and the St. Charles East boys basketball team didn’t last long in the unfamiliar winner’s side of the draw at the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic.
Yet Saints coach Brian Clodi thought Tuesday’s 74-70 loss to Brother Rice in a second-round contest was a clear step toward the Saints becoming the kind of team he envisions. Clodi called the matchup with the one-loss Crusaders “a loss that makes us so much better.”
“You’re going to pick guys off their team before ours, but our kids had the grit and the toughness and the belief that we could play with these guys, and that’s what we’re trying to establish here,” Clodi said.
The Saints, making their first winner’s bracket appearance at the tournament in 11 years of participation, slide back to consolation play, where St. Ignatius awaits at 2:30 p.m. today.
East guards Kendall Stephens and Charlie Fisher showed whey they started as underclassmen a year ago, combining for 49 points. While Stephens (28 points) has had his share of outbursts early in his sophomore season, Fisher’s 21 points supplied the Saints (4-7) an unforeseen jolt.
The junior point guard was 4-for-4 both from the floor and the free throw line at halftime, with three of the shots coming from three-point territory. His off-balance three-pointer beat the halftime buzzer to cut the Crusaders’ once 13-point lead to 39-34.
“My mindset’s been a little bit different for this tournament,” Fisher said. “I’ve had more of that killer instinct that I really haven’t had for this whole season. I’m trying to get back into that.”
The Saints continued pushing early in the third quarter, drawing within 39-38 on a jumper by senior Spencer Motley, whose 50-foot buzzer-beater the day before snared the Saints a memorable upset against Maine South. But East went dry with two chances to take the lead, and never overtook Brother Rice.
Stephens tallied 13 of East’s 17 first quarter points, but went down with a frightening-looking back injury early in the second quarter. He went to the locker room for part of the second quarter and received a heat treatment at halftime, and said he hopes it doesn’t tighten up overnight. Initially, it looked like it could be worse and said he hopes his back doesn’t tighten up overnight.
“He’s our franchise,” Clodi said. “We’re just praying that everything’s healthy.”
Crusaders coach Pat Richardson wasn’t keen on his team’s defense against Stephens.
“He’s hard to guard because he uses screens really well and they run really good stuff offensively, and they cut really hard and they screen really well,” Richardson said. “We ought to be the greatest team defending screens in the history of the world because we set more in practice than anybody in the world. That’s all we do, screen, and every type of screen, so you’d think we’d be good at defending it.”
East mounted a late rally after Brother Rice (9-1) ballooned its lead to 63-47 with about five minutes left in the game. Ramped-up full-court defensive pressure and a flurry of three-pointers allowed the Saints to cut the deficit to 66-62 with 1:06 to go, but Brother Rice made enough late free throws to stave off the Saints.
Overall, the Saints thought they surrendered too many easy baskets, either because of poor transition defense or soft spots in their zone that led to layups.
“They’re a great passing team, so they were always looking to make the extra pass,” Stephens said. “You’ve just got to give credit to them, but we’ve got to do better in our matchups.”
When it comes to individual matchups, undersized East might be in for its nastiest of the season today against St. Ignatius, which boasts 6-foot-10 Illinois recruit Nnana Egwu.
“He’s going to be a handful,” Stephens said.