FREEPORT – Andrew Kimball swished 3-pointers early and Tim Zettinger attacked the basket late.
Those and a handful of other elements contributed to St. Francis’ first boys basketball sectional title since 1989 Friday, and the Spartans happily gave each equal time after topping Rockford Lutheran, 63-60, for the 3A Freeport Sectional crown.
“All of us have our roles,” said Kimball, a senior guard from Geneva. “Zett’s a slasher, I’m the shooter. Everyone has a role. That’s why we win. We don’t really have a star. We just all have our roles.”
St. Francis (22-7) advanced to Tuesday’s DeKalb Supersectional, where it will face Peoria Sectional champion Bartonville Limestone at 6 p.m. at Northern Illinois University’s Convocation Center.
That trip figures to feel like a mere errand for the Spartans compared to this week’s commute.
After defeating Sycamore in Thursday’s sectional semifinal – a game pushed back one day because of this week’s winter storms – the Spartans did not get back to school until just before midnight Friday, players said.
The team was dismissed about a half-hour early Friday afternoon and held a brief practice before boarding the bus for a ride that totaled about two hours.
“We made the long drive out here, and we didn’t make it for nothing,” said Spartans junior forward Kilian Brown, of Geneva. “We knew that just because we were making the long drive, we had to put ourselves to the test. We focused all the way up here for two hours straight, and it worked out in the end.”
Perhaps basketball’s biggest head game – free throws – went in the Spartans’ favor. The Crusaders (25-5) finished 15 of 31 from the foul line. The Spartans were 17 for 25.
Rockford Lutheran coach Tom Guse shook his head about his team’s free throw struggles after the game. The Crusaders overcame them in Wednesday’s semifinal win against Woodstock, but Guse knew the team’s nagging Achilles heel wasn’t going away.
Behind a second-half charge from Zettinger – who went 10 for 12 from the line after halftime en route to 22 points – St. Francis stayed patient when the Crusaders slashed into the Spartans’ early leads.
Kimball provided plenty of early traction with success from long range.
His 21-point night included a 6 for 11 effort from 3-point land as the Crusaders often sagged off him while using a trapping man-to-man defense.
“My guy was leaving to go double-team, and I’d hit a couple 3s, and I was like, ‘Hey, if they keep on doing it, I’ll keep on shooting it,’ ” Kimball said.
In the long term, Rockford Lutheran still withstood big games from Zettinger, Kimball and a spirited night from Brown, who had nine points and five rebounds in significant minutes off the bench.
As St. Francis threatened to pull away – it led, 40-32, late in the third quarter – versatile junior guard Thomas Kopelman (20 points) sparked a charge.
His driving basket with 3:50 to play tied the game at 53-all, but he missed the ensuing opportunity to take the lead with a three-point play after getting fouled. With St. Francis leading, 59-57, down the stretch, a charging call on Zettinger with 1:04 left potentially loomed large.
With the same score and 28.8 seconds remaining, Crusaders freshman guard James Robinson went to the line. As the Spartans’ well-traveled Blue Crew student section yelled such chants as “YOU’RE A FRESH-MAN!” and “YOU’RE WIDE OPEN!”, both Robinson attempts rattled out, and St. Francis secured the rebound, then confidently went to the line.
“When they made their comeback, our kids were composed,” St. Francis coach Bob Ward said. “When we got fouled, we made free throws and we made big stops at the end.”
That and 32 consistent minutes of the Spartans’ wearying man-to-man defense added up to a victory. Next stop, DeKalb.