GENEVA – The St. Charles East boys basketball team solved the sluggish starts that have proven costly in early-season conference losses.
There’s still loads of room for improvement when it comes to closing games out, but the Saints can happily troubleshoot that area after their giant exhale Friday night.
East saw its 18-point, second-half lead shrivel to one point late, but the Saints fought off Geneva, 61-57, in a dramatic Upstate Eight Conference River clash.
“We were really stressing we’ve got to come out early and hit them,” East junior guard Cole Gentry said. “Thank God we got that big lead because they made a nice run, but that’s what we’ve been stressing all week – we’ve got to come out ready, come out ready, and we did.”
The Saints doubled up the Vikings for a 28-14 halftime lead, and led 44-26 late in the third quarter after consecutive 3-pointers from senior Dom Adduci.
But Geneva (6-2, 1-1 UEC River) cranked up the tension with a huge fourth quarter effort.
Junior post Mike Landi scored 10 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter – including a pair of 3-pointers – and Vikings standout Nate Navigato drained a 3-pointer to slash East’s lead to 57-56 with 34 seconds to go in the game.
The final 30 seconds were even wilder than the rest of the quarter.
Adduci split a pair of free throws to make it 58-56 with 25 seconds to play, and tight AJ Washington defense on Navigato – a major theme of the night – forced a Vikings turnover to return possession to the Saints.
East junior Zach Manibog then split two free throws for a three-point Saints lead with 8.5 seconds to play. With Geneva facing a three-point deficit, Gentry made an executive decision to foul Geneva point guard Cam Cook with 4.7 seconds left to prevent the Vikings from hoisting a potentially tying 3-point shot.
Gentry said he feared another clutch moment for Navigato.
“I’ve played with Nate forever,” Gentry said. “He hit one last year, and I had a nightmare about that, so I was like, I’ve got to take this foul.”
Cook made the first free throw and missed the second, but the ball was tapped out of bounds to Geneva, giving the Vikings the ball, trailing 59-57, with 3.5 seconds to play.
But in a game in which the whistles largely went Geneva’s way – the Vikings were in the double bonus in the second half before being called for a single foul themselves – Navigato was whistled for an offensive foul as he tried to clear space on the Vikings’ inbound play, effectively squashing the home team’s comeback bid.
Navigato, who erupted for 41 points Saturday against Bloomington, scored all 18 of his points in the second half, when he made 11 straight free throws.
But the rangy Washington’s shut-down defense on Navigato in the first half loomed large.
“I knew I had to beat him to the spot,” Washington said. “Stay down. He pumps a lot, he’s got good moves. I stayed down and hoped that I had help, and fronted him in the post.”
Geneva coach Phil Ralston said his team’s costly first half extended well beyond Navigato’s slow start.
“This wasn’t a Nate issue – this was a team issue,” Ralston said. “This was us not setting picks to get guys open in the post such as we had designed it. Guys not running plays. We had some guys that were running one play, and guys were running another play. So it’s a lack of communication, too.”
East (3-4, 1-2 UEC River) has had Geneva’s number in recent seasons, and the Vikings might have caught the Saints at a tough time Friday. After opening the conference schedule with losses at Larkin and at St. Charles North, the Saints desperately needed the win.
“On the board in the classroom before the game, we put ‘Conference championship,’ ” East coach Pat Woods said. “Because, in my opinion, if we wanted a chance at it, we had to win tonight. Tonight was a do-or-die win to keep us in the race. We’ve got some ground to cover if we still want that as our goal, and I think we do.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable because, I tell you what, with the different teams we’ve saw already plus the ones I’ve scouted, there’s no one that’s going to go through this conference undefeated, in my opinion.”
The Saints looked much more like the team they expect to be on Friday. Adduci led East with 19 points, while Gentry – who has battled a balky back – was up to his old tricks, scoring 13 points and making a few slithering moves to the basket that supported his contention that he’s nearing 100 percent, physically.
East also benefited from crucial contributions from role players such as Manibog (10 points, three 3-pointers in his first start) and junior Jake Asquini, who hit a 3-pointer to put East up, 56-51, with 1:44 left in the game.
“The thing about it is we got thrown into this conference race so early with, in my opinion, the three toughest teams in conference, on the road,” Woods said. “So we’re just still trying to find our way.”
Junior guard Pace Temple notched 10 points for the Vikings.
Both teams must move beyond Friday’s emotional finish with conference play continuing tonight. Geneva heads to Elgin and St. Charles East takes on visiting Streamwood.