SOUTH ELGIN – St. Charles North’s boys basketball team practiced against six or seven frenzied defenders at a time in preparation for Friday’s IHSA Class 4A South Elgin Regional championship game against ball-hawking Larkin.
That might sound like a high degree of difficulty, but it still doesn’t measure up to dealing with the real Royals, 5-on-5, under game conditions.
For the third and final time this season, Larkin’s quick feet, quicker hands and proficiency in the open court led to a double-digit Royals win over the North Stars, a 75-64 triumph that left the North Stars with no choice but to salute their Upstate Eight Conference River nemesis.
“You get by one trap, you get past half court, and all the sudden you’re in another trap, and then you kind of make that obvious next pass, and that’s the one they jump,” North coach Tom Poulin said.
North started the game crashing the offensive glass and riding an impressive burst from senior guard Quinten Payne, who had eight first-quarter points as the North Stars took an 18-11 lead.
But the Royals dominated the second quarter, draining four 3-pointers and ratcheting up the defensive heat to help overtake the North Stars by halftime, 30-28.
“Really, we started off the game so well just finishing and doing what we do best,” North senior forward Justin Stanko said. “And it just turned so fast. Everything just turned. We went away from what was working.”
Shaky passes and improper floor balance turned into swift transition baskets for the Royals (23-5), who brushed off their poor start to sustain control of the game throughout the second half.
Junior wing Kendale McCullum pestered North Stars ball-handlers all over the floor, with backcourt-mates Quentin Ruff (24 points) and Quantice Hunter (15) eager to parlay North mistakes into successful fast breaks or open 3-pointers in transition.
“Coach expects a lot out of us because he knows how quick we are, how fast we can leap, so that’s why he expects a lot out of us defensively,” McCullum said.
North (18-11) trailed, 55-41, heading into the fourth quarter but, with Larkin’s rhythm compromised as the Royals sought to run some clock, the North Stars mounted a gradual comeback.
North twice cut the deficit to nine points, and junior guard Alec Goetz attempted a pair of corner 3-pointers on the same possession that would have cut Larkin's lead to six, but the second one rimmed in and out, and defeat became imminent."
The Loyola-bound Payne, a three-year starter, scored a game-high 28 points and was met by a rousing ovation as he checked out of the game in the final minute. He left North fans with a strong final impression, including a thunderous, two-handed dunk on a third quarter drive that brought North within 47-39. On the ensuing defensive possession, Payne picked up his fourth foul and had to sit the final 2:30 of the quarter.
Senior point guard Tony Neari, the younger brother of former North great Nick Neari, added 10 points for the North Stars.
Poulin turned emotional discussing his large, productive senior class.
“It’ll be difficult not to see [Kyle] Swanson every day. That kid is something special,” Poulin said, beginning to tear up. “Obviously Quinten, he’d do anything, he’d run through the wall for you. Tony Neari, I remember seeing him coming to the gym for open gyms when he was a 10-year-old kid.”
After composing himself and talking a little more basketball, Poulin returned to hailing North’s senior class.
“The guys, since we walked into this building, have been trying to do the right thing,” Poulin said. “They’ve been competing and they’ve just been playing with just a ton of heart. I think that was the same tonight, but Larkin is a better basketball team. They beat you three times. You’ve got to take your hat off and say we wish them the best moving forward.”