ST. CHARLES – The first battle of St. Charles is taking place a little earlier than scheduled this season.
With East and North matched up on opposite sides of the 54th Annual Ron Johnson Thanksgiving Tournament brackets and a loaded field ahead of each team, the odds seemed long that the crosstown rivals would meet in tonight’s final.
But North held off a late Downers Grove South rally to advance to the 7:45 p.m. title game with a 53-48 win while East blew away perennial power St. Joseph, 71-53, to set up the showdown.
North’s tournament championship berth is the first in program history while East (3-0) hasn’t won the tournament since the 1970s.
While both wins were impressive, East’s triumphant win over St. Joseph might carry the most cachet. The Chargers are a preseason top-10 team in some Chicago area rankings, and feature a loaded starting lineup with several Division 1 prospects.
A 29-8 third quarter blitz erased a 26-24 halftime deficit and punched East’s ticket to the championship game.
“We had to make a couple of adjustments at half and talked about finishing around the basket more,” East coach Pat Woods said. “Kendall Stephens and Dom Adduci came out and started hitting shots and it was a great run. Any time you can beat St. Joe’s, it’s a great win.”
Stephens, playing the year with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, seemed unfazed by the injury, scoring a game-high 31 points. The Purdue recruit said preparation before each game is key.
“I’m feeling good – a little sore but good. Being an athlete, taking care of your body is the number one goal,” Stephens said. “You have to prepare for each game and each task. We came out ballin,’ and coach preaches the first four minutes of each quarter.”
East’s two-point halftime deficit turned into a 53-34 lead at the end of the third quarter. Adduci caught fire in the third, knocking down three triples and a floating jumper in the lane with two seconds left that provided East with a huge cushion.
“This win really showed our true colors that we can play with anyone in the state,” Adduci said. “Coach always says to focus in four-minute increments. We were focusing as hard as we could and played with as much intensity as we could. Once we started hitting shots, we started to feed off each other.”
Stephens and Adduci weren’t the only East players to chip in during the third quarter spurt. Saints bench players Jake Asquini, Cole Gentry and AJ Washington each pitched in with baskets during the quarter.
“We have a great group of guys that feeds off each other and want each other to do well,” Stephens said. “Coach preaches knowing our roles and credit to Asquini and the freshman James [McQuillan] coming off the bench. They did a great job knowing their roles.”
North (3-0) will have its hands full with an East team that hit 11 threes against St. Joe. The North Stars used a game-high 15 points from point guard Tony Neari, who hit a pair of free throws with 10.4 seconds to go that gave North a four-point advantage.
Neari had seven points in the fourth quarter as the North Stars made enough free throws to advance.
North coach Tom Poulin was happy with Neari’s play, especially at the start of the second half as the North Stars went on a 10-0 run to erase a four-point halftime deficit.
“That’s what you want to see from your point guard – he’s had a good tournament,” Poulin said. “I thought he did a better job today of game management and leading us and understanding the time and score while making sure we do the right things. He was confident from start to finish, and didn’t second-guess himself.”
A Neari three with 5:14 left in the third quarter gave the North Stars their biggest lead of the night at 42-35. A pair of Robert Mara free throws tied the game at 42 before North sharpshooter Alec Goetz banged home a three that gave the North Stars the lead for good.
North went 7 for 12 from the charity stripe in the final minute to seal the win.
“Tonight [Downers Grove South] did a good job of denying our main shooter Goetz the ball so someone else had to step up,” Neari said. “We’re going to have a new leading scorer every night so it was just everyone getting involved.”
Neari, Quinten Payne (13 points) and Justin Stanko (10) were all in double figures for North.
Poulin, who picked East to win the UEC River, is excited about the prospect of playing East so early in the season.
“They are incredible. I told everyone that they are my preseason favorite,” Poulin said. “They are loaded. Just like every other game in this tournament, it’s going to be a challenge.”