DeKALB – The St. Francis boys basketball team entered the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s IHSA Class 3A NIU Supersectional plus-five in the turnover battle with Bartonville Limestone, and nursing a small lead.
But St. Francis committed six turnovers in the fourth quarter while Limestone handled the ball flawlessly, so it’s no coincidence that the game’s bottom-line statistic – the scoreboard – also went south on the Spartans. Limestone’s ability to frazzle St. Francis in crunch time allowed the Rockets to prevail, 55-50, and advance to the 3A state semifinals this weekend in Peoria.
“They definitely picked up the intensity on defense,” St. Francis senior Andrew Kimball said. “We just made some bad decisions. We weren’t thinking. We lost our composure, and when one or two happens, then you start overthinking, and then four and five come, and that can’t happen if you want to win.”
The Spartans took four-point leads four different times in the second half, including a 36-32 advantage on a Kevin McShea layup early in the fourth quarter. But the Rockets (24-9) scored the game’s next 10 points in a crucial stretch capped by a Lorenzo Burns free throw to make it 42-36 with 4:24 left in the game.
The Spartans were reeling, but guard Jason Pisarski canned a top-of-the-key 3-pointer to slice the deficit in half, senior Matt Bonner scored inside and fellow senior Tim Zettinger made two free throws to put the Spartans up, 43-42, with 2:30 to go.
St. Francis took its final lead at the 1:53 mark when Bonner ducked in for a baseline layup to make it 45-44 Spartans, but Limestone’s Hank Mathews drilled a 3-pointer to give his team a 47-45 edge with 1:40 left, putting Limestone on top for good.
The Spartans’ fourth quarter turnover woes then returned when Zettinger lost the ball on a drive, and the Rockets were in strong position from there against a St. Francis squad that, for the second straight year, made an unexpectedly deep postseason push. Last year’s Spartans advanced to a sectional final, and coach Bob Ward’s team went one step further this time.
“We always come out with the mindset hat we can beat anybody – tonight, we just didn’t have it,” Zettinger said. “Last year, we went out and beat some Chicago teams, this year we came out and beat some good teams out west. … Tonight, we played a good game, but we came up short.”
Pisarski led St. Francis with 13 points, including a banked-in 3-pointer that gave the Spartans life, down 50-48, with about 20 seconds to go.
But Limestone’s Mathews, the son of coach Eddie Mathews, converted four straight free throws to keep the Rockets in command, and the Spartans ended their season with a 22-8 record. Mathews led Limestone with 17 points.
“Obviously he’s a very good free-throw shooter but sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to foul the right guy,” Ward said. “The ball certainly goes in his hands late.”
Kimball, who drained six 3-pointers and scored 21 points in Friday’s sectional final win against Rockford Lutheran, was limited to five 3-point attempts against Limestone, making two of them. With the springy, 6-foot-3 David Anderson blocking five shots for the Rockets, Limestone could afford to focus on perimeter defense.
“We know [Kimball] is a great shooter … he was a dead-red, knockdown shooter, so we stayed home,” coach Mathews said. “We stayed home. We asked our guards to contain and play one-on-one and see if they could make plays on us. It just helps when Anderson’s above the rim. His timing is uncanny.”
St. Francis was in a 14-6 hole after the first quarter but played its best basketball of the night over the first two minutes of the second quarter, coming all the way back to knot the score at 14. Limestone led, 20-18, at halftime.
Bonner had 10 points while junior forward Kilian Brown scored six points to go with six rebounds off the bench for the Spartans, who started five seniors.
With such a veteran team, it’s no surprise emotions were high after the loss. Ward called his senior class “the best.”
“These are not tears of regret,” Ward said. “Sometimes in the locker room at the end of the year, kids regret, hey I could have done this, or whatever. These are just tears, you know what, something special kind of came to an end.”