GENEVA – The St. Charles North boys basketball team has encountered mixed results protecting late leads this season, but the North Stars aren’t about to turn wide-eyed when they see a lead shrinking.
North went more than six minutes into the fourth quarter without scoring and saw its 11-point lead dwindle to two, but the North Stars made eight straight free throws to replenish their advantage and hang on Friday for a 53-50 Upstate Eight Conference River win against Geneva.
Senior point guard Tony Neari made four of those free throws, including North’s first points of the quarter for a 47-43 lead with 1:58 left in the game.
“I think we’re improving on holding a lead,” Neari said. “Even though we didn’t score in that six-minute stretch, we still killed a lot of clock which made it even harder for them, even when they were making their run, to keep it going and cut our deficit even more.”
With the win, North (16-8 overall) capped its UEC River schedule with an 8-4 conference mark and ended in a tie for second place with St. Charles East, which was upset by Elgin on Friday. Geneva (18-8, 6-6 UEC River) finished fourth in the conference, with all three teams trailing UEC River champion Larkin.
The North Stars also avenged a listless, 51-40 home loss to Geneva in December.
“We didn’t play well at all that first game, we had no energy, but today we came out and we knew they were going to come out and play as hard as they could because it was their senior night, so that was our big thing,” North senior Quinten Payne said. “We didn’t want to be beat on our senior night and we knew that they didn’t want to either, so they were going to come out with tons of energy.”
Perhaps, but the Vikings’ adrenaline was misdirected in the early minutes. With three different starters in the lineup as Geneva coach Phil Ralston went with an all-senior lineup, North zoomed to a 12-0 lead, the first seven points coming before usual starters Nate Navigato, Chris Parrilli and Cam Cook joined Connor Chapman and Mike Trimble on the floor.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and that’s why I think the quick start was beneficial for us to get out early, give us a little bit of a cushion, because you know they’re going to make runs, you know they’re going to slow the game down and force you to be smart and play the game in the 40s and the 50s,” North coach Tom Poulin said.
The North Stars made five 3-pointer in the first half and led, 30-21, at the break.
North upped its advantage to 45-34 heading into the fourth quarter, but a spirited late push by the Vikings closed most of the gap. Navigato scored four straight points to bring Geneva within 45-43 with 2:33 left, but the North Stars tightened their ball-handling late and were effective enough from the free-throw line to send Geneva to its fifth conference loss in seven games after starting 4-1 in River play.
“I told the kids, it wasn’t what happened in the fourth quarter that led to this loss, it was possessions in the first half where we couldn’t seem to get the ball over half court, or get us into an offense, things of that nature that really kind of made the difference,” Ralston said.
Both teams had plenty of scoring balance.
Junior guard Alec Goetz scored 11 points and senior forward Kyle Swanson and Payne each added 10 for the North Stars, while Navigato (12) and Chapman (11) paced the Vikings.
Neither coach was immediately certain who the opposition would be Thursday in the regular season-ending UEC crossover matchup that is determined by conference standings. The North Stars also have a rare Sunday game on the slate against Niles Notre Dame this weekend at Gordon Tech.
The North Stars have won five games in a row.
“It’s very nice, but we still want to make that run in the postseason,” Neari said. “That’s the most important run for us right now.”