ST. CHARLES – The Larkin boys basketball team quashed all suspense in the Upstate Eight Conference River race by the first night of February, and now there is no doubt which team is the clear favorite once the 4A St. Charles North Regional tips next month.
Playing on that same floor Saturday night, Larkin cemented its status as back-to-back UEC River champions, building an 18-point lead before holding off North, 62-55.
Both St. Charles schools will be among the leading contenders to upset Larkin when postseason play begins. But after the Royals won at East on Thursday and at North on Saturday to notch regular season sweeps against both schools, Larkin has earned the status as prohibitive favorites.
"If we have the target on our backs, that's fine," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. "But when the ball's thrown up, all teams go for it, so we'll see come regional time."
For now, the Royals (18-3, 9-0 UEC River) have a more certain championship to celebrate, which they did heartily in the locker room after the game. Larkin clinched at least a share of the title, but another outright crown is a virtual certainty with three home conference games remaining.
"Back-to-back doing that, two years in a row, from where this program was five years ago when we all came together, I don't ever want them to take that for granted, you know what I mean," Carter said. "We get really low when we lose, but you've got to get really high, then, when you win, and I just wanted to make sure our guys knew the magnitude of what they did for our school and our program, winning back-to-back conference championships."
Although North (12-7, 6-3 UEC River) made up substantial ground in the second half, Larkin could smell the conference championship-clincher by halftime, when it led, 34-20. Senior forward Brayden Royse – usually not an offensive focal point for the balanced Royals – made a trio of 3-pointers in the second quarter as Larkin created separation.
"Out of everyone on that team, that's kind of who you would like to have shooting, even though he's a quality basketball player, we'd rather have him shooting," North coach Tom Poulin said of Royse. "But we'd like him shooting contested shots. I might have been able to make those, he was so open."
North's midgame woes were compounded by a technical foul for touching the rim during halftime warmups, and after a Kendale McCullum-to-Christian Negron alley-oop dunk to begin the third quarter, the Royals led by 18.
The North Stars played much better the rest of the way, even coming within five points twice in the final two minutes, but chasing 18 points against a team of Larkin's caliber is almost guaranteed to end badly.
"We were playing just, like, street ball – we weren't playing as a team," North forward Erik Miller said of Larkin's ability to build a large lead. "Like I said, bad shots, I know me, personally. But that second half, if we play like that the whole game, I think we're unstoppable."
Miller (14 points, 11 rebounds) helped North make inroads, as did senior guard Alec Goetz, who also scored 14, and reserve forward Camden Cotter, who made a 3-pointer to cut Larkin's lead to 55-49 with 2:14 to play.
Miller played one of his best games of the season against a school in which he has sustained past injuries in football and basketball.
"I would say I guess I have a grudge against [Larkin]," Miller said. "And they are winning the conference right now. I felt myself, I needed to step up, get some boards, do whatever we needed to have the team win."
McCullum scored a game-high 20 points while Negron continued his impressive freshman season with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Larkin beat North by seven two days after a nine-point win at East.
"We're all very proud of ourselves," Negron said. "We had a lot of guys beat up as well, and both [St. Charles schools] are really good, so it just means a lot for us to come out and win on the road, as well."