CHICAGO – Nobody will accuse Nate Navigato of basketball stage fright.
After scoring 41 points on the University of Illinois' home floor in a Geneva comeback win last month, Navigato again rose to the occasion in a glitzy setting, drilling a decisive 3-pointer with 3 seconds to go at the United Center on Saturday as the Vikings defeated Kaneland, 54-51.
Navigato scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter. His hesitance to declare which marquee game is the season's highlight to date was in stark contrast to the decisiveness with which he played when the Vikings needed their star to bail them out of fourth quarter trouble.
"Just to play on this floor was awesome, especially with this group of guys," Navigato said. "It was amazing. I'll remember this forever."
Kaneland senior Ty Carlson expressed similar sentiments after his own late-game dagger. Carlson did his best to bring jersey No. 23 back in style at the United Center, sinking a dramatic 3-pointer to tie the score at 51 with 15 seconds to go in the game.
After a timeout, Geneva had possession with 9.4 seconds to play. Senior point guard Cam Cook dribble upcourt and found Navigato on the right wing. The junior forward unleashed the game-winning shot from the NBA 3-point arc.
"We went to a 1-3-1," Kaneland coach Brian Johnson said. "I was hoping they were maybe drawing something up for [man-to-man defense]. I thought it was contested. Unfortunately, I think our contest was a 5-10 kid and another 5-10 kid against a 6-5 kid. Nate can shoot over that. He made a big shot. He's a Division I player. Big-time players rise in big-time moments, and that's what he did."
After a timeout, the Knights had only 3.3 seconds with which to work. The Vikings elected to foul Kaneland's Drew David with 2.3 seconds left rather than let the Knights (7-4) shoot a potentially tying 3-pointer.
David missed both free throws – the second intentionally – and Kaneland senior John Pruett slapped the rebound toward Connor Fedderly in the corner, but Fedderly's desperation 3-point try was off line, sealing the fifth win in a row for the Vikings (13-3).
Navigato's late surge distracted from the big-time performance by Carlson, who scored a game-high 21 points. In addition to his tying 3-pointer with 15 seconds left, Carlson made 3-pointers to bring Kaneland within 20-19 at the end of the first half and to within 37-33 on a bizarre buzzer-beater to end the third quarter.
Carlson tracked down a long rebound and heaved an off-balance, wild shot that hit the heel of the rim with a thud, then dropped in. Carlson said the shot was "a brick," but oh, well.
"I just always try to get offensive rebounds. When I saw it go up, I went for it. I didn't know where I was but I just put it up, and luckily it went in," said Carlson, as members of the Luvabulls waited to take over the Kaneland locker room.
Carlson had plenty of help from fellow senior John Pruett, especially in the fourth quarter. Pruett attacked the rim with newfound fervor early in the fourth as the Knights went on a 9-0 run to take a 42-39 lead with 4:53 to play. Pruett scored the final seven points of the run and added two more free throws moments later to put the Knights ahead, 44-41.
Pruett scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter.
"I've always thought very highly of John," Johnson said. "I've thought he's one of the better players in our area, I just think sometimes he shies away from it. I think today he showed that he can get to the bucket. … And I thought he did a good job for three quarters against a Division I kid. He played as hard as he could on the defensive end of the floor."
The Knights lost ground in the third quarter when David – a four-year starter at point guard – took an inadvertent elbow to the mouth and was tended to for a chunk of the quarter after spilling blood on the United Center floor.
The Vikings led, 37-27, late in the third quarter before Kaneland scored the final six points of the quarter.
Geneva junior guard Pace Temple scored 11 points off the bench as the Vikings' reserves outscored Kaneland's, 15-0.
The Vikings have faced their former conference rivals at the United Center three times since since the 2008-09 season, winning all three. Saturday's was the closest of those matchups.
"I never felt like we really attacked them on the inside," Geneva coach Phil Ralston said. "I felt like we were content enough to not really be patient, take some shots that might have been a little uncharacteristic for us. Obviously when Kaneland put the pressure on us, it was nice to see that our kids had the poise and composure to be down three and be able to still pull it out."
Once the varsity game concluded, the programs played a short JV matchup before gearing up to watch the main event at the United Center on Saturday night.
After a goosebump-inducing final minutes between the Vikings and Knights, the Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks had lots to live up to.