PONTIAC – What arguably would have been the greatest win in school history slipped from the St. Charles North boys basketball team’s grasp, so the North Stars settled for one of the program’s finest performances.
A tinge of melancholy mingled with the enormous pride the North Stars felt Friday after taking four-time defending IHSA Class 4A state champion Simeon to triple overtime at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, falling to the Wolverines, 82-74.
Simeon needed a tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime.
“It’s wild to say we feel like we let one slip away against Simeon, but we feel like we did,” North Stars coach Tom Poulin said. “But I haven’t been more proud of any team I’ve ever coached in my life.”
Simeon’s roster is perennially chock-full of future Division I talent, but nobody mesmerized the Pontiac faithful like North senior Alec Goetz. The 160-pound combo guard stood up to Simeon’s invasive ball pressure and swarm of long-armed defenders to score a game-high 36 points and set a holiday tournament record with eight 3-pointers in the game.
“I know Alec is probably one of the best scorers in our conference, one of the best scorers in the state, but I think just how tough he was [was most impressive],” North junior Jack Callaghan said. “I mean, he was getting hammered but he kept going to the lane. He wasn’t missing anything. I think he’s even more of a competitor than I thought he was.”
Goetz went 8 for 11 from the 3-point line, several of them hoisted well beyond the arc. As Goetz continued rippling the nets, North’s belief that it could pull the whopping upset mounted.
“That’s got to be one of the toughest games Simeon has played all year,” Goetz said. “That makes us happy. Honestly, we just hope to gain some respect out of this game. I hope people finally see that St. Charles North is legit. We can play teams like Simeon. We want to be up there with that type of talent.”
Goetz had a worthy running mate in the backcourt.
Junior guard Jake Ludwig scored 21 points; together Goetz and Ludwig scored 28 of North’s 30 first-half points as the North Stars led, 30-27, at the break.
Striking praise came from veteran Simeon coach Robert Smith.
“I haven’t played everybody yet [this year] but I probably haven’t seen two guards that good yet,” Smith said.
North’s bench could hardly contain its enthusiasm as the North Stars led most of the game. Players stood and cheered with incredulous body language, and their joy soon spread to the crowd, which showered the upset-hunting North Stars with healthy ovations.
Turns out, though, the nationally regarded Wolverines don’t mind playing the villain.
With the gymnasium at rapt attention, Simeon inbounded the ball after a timeout with 7.5 seconds left in regulation and North leading, 58-55.
Poulin said he considered instructing his team to foul to prevent a 3-point attempt but he feared the Wolverines’ elite athleticism could lead to an offensive rebound and put-back. Plus, the Wolverines had not made a 3-pointer all game.
That changed when Simeon (8-1) urgently needed one, as Wolverines forward Jaycee Hillsman was mistakenly left open by a collapsing defender in the corner, and he pocketed the tying 3-pointer before time expired.
As demoralizing as the buzzer-beating 3 was, North did not succumb to the momentum swing.
Ludwig split a pair of free throws – as he did at the end of regulation before Hillsman’s huge 3 – tying the score at 64 with 1:29 left in the first overtime. Both teams had prime scoring chances in the final minute that yielded nothing, prompting double OT.
The Wolverines led, 69-66, in the second overtime until Goetz buried a corner 3-pointer, falling to the ground upon his release, to tie the score with 1:12 remaining.
Goetz then answered a dunk by Simeon forward Edward Morrow (team-highs of 31 points and 14 rebounds) with a pair of free throws to make it 71-all with 26 seconds left, and it stayed that way until the third overtime.
The Wolverines finally wrestled control in triple overtime, although Goetz’s final 3-pointer of the game – another deep one – brought North within 77-74 at the 2:01 mark. That would be the final basket for North, which bravely navigated the Wolverines’ vaunted defense for most of the game.
“It’s tough trying to get your shot up in the lane,” Callaghan said. “I mean, I got blocked I think a couple times. Offensively it’s tough, and then you’ve got to box out, because if you’re in front of them, it’s not enough because they’re going to go vertical [to get the rebound]. It’s extra work. You’ve got to work a lot harder to get rebounds, points, assists. It takes a toll on your body, but if you’re mentally tough, you can get through it.”
Callaghan led North with 13 rebounds but the North Stars were outrebounded by Simeon by a whopping 30 caroms (63-33).
Simeon’s rebounding prowess, though, was counteracted by woeful shooting from the 3-point line (1 of 14) and foul line (25 for 44 and 7 for 15 in the first half).
After the severe physical and emotional toll exacted by the three-overtime rumble, North (7-5) had about eight hours to regroup before a consolation showdown with Bloom that didn't tip until after 9 p.m. Bloom edged North, 59-58, as Callaghan (17 points), Goetz (16) and Ludwig (14) paced the North Stars in their tournament swan song.
"Three [overtimes] against Simeon, and then you get either Bloom or Oak Park-River Forest," Poulin said before Bloom fell to Oak Park in double overtime. "That's cruel and usual, here at Pontiac.
"But we'll take it. This is like the highlight of our season. Until we put a deep run again in the playoffs, there's nothing like coming here and playing in a 16-team field against the best."
A showing like North gave Friday is all the more remarkable considering the North Stars returned only one starter this season and were largely considered an afterthought in the Upstate Eight Conference River. Plus, one of the North's top athletes, starting forward Erik Miller, is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
"I learned an awful lot about what type of people I have wearing our uniform and representing our school," Poulin said. "We've got a special, special group of guys."