HAMPSHIRE – Kaneland reserve guard Ben Barnes attempted two free throws in the closing seconds of the Knights’ IHSA Class 3A Hampshire Sectional semifinal Tuesday.
Given Kaneland’s first half against Rockford Lutheran, the Knights envisioned such a scenario salting away a win. They experienced the opposite.
The Knights overcame an early hole before watching senior Ty Carlson torch the Crusaders for 29 first-half points. After halftime, however, Kaneland’s perch grew far less cushy, as an 11-point edge swiftly and sourly transformed into to a 76-61 defeat.
“At halftime, we were really excited. The kids were pumped,” Knights coach Brian Johnson said. “I almost think it crept into their mind, like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win this game.’ Against a team like Rockford Lutheran that’s very well-coached and has so many guys that can put it in the hole, you can’t have that mentality, and I thought that’s where our downfall started.”
The Crusaders (28-3) advanced to Friday’s sectional final against the winner of tonight’s semifinal between Sycamore and Marian Central.
A quartet of double-figure scorers – Thomas Kopelman (21), Joseph Kellen (19), James Robinson (17) and Nate Wieting (13) – turned up the urgency after the break.
Robinson proved especially effective on both ends of the floor after taking the assignment to defend Carlson in the second half. While the senior wing closed his career with 38 points, Carlson’s final nine came amid staunch pressure.
Rockford Lutheran also capitalized on senior point guard Drew David’s foul trouble, harrassing Kaneland ballhandlers and clogging passing lanes.
“When we picked up the defense, we knew we could make it happen on the offensive end,” Robinson said.
The Crusaders knew they needed some salve against Kaneland (18-10) after Carlson’s first 16 minutes, which included 5 for 5 shooting from beyond the arc and a 4 of 5 effort from the line.
“It was just one of those halves where everything I put up went in,” Carlson said. “You know, I felt good. I can’t say enough about my teammates. Drew finding me in transition was awesome, and my shots fell. That’s about it.”
Only three other Knights scored in the game, which ultimately added up. Fellow senior John Pruett (15 points) was the only other Kaneland player in double figures.
Rockford Lutheran outscored Kaneland, 31-11, in the third quarter after trailing, 37-26, at halftime.
Limited to only three first-half rebounds, the Crusaders started their climb by getting more aggressive under the boards and attacking the basket.
“What it really was, was we wanted to really pick up the tempo,” Crusaders coach Tom Guse said. “We just said, ‘Look, if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.’ It wasn’t about Xs and Os at halftime. It had nothing to do with Xs and Os. It was about heart, challenging these guys to really work in the second half at trying to get the ball up the floor, get the ball to the hole, get them in foul trouble. And they executed perfectly.”
Grit still told only part of the story. The Crusaders drilled 10 3s, including their first five attempts.
A Carlson 3 with 5:54 left in the game brought Kaneland to within 57-55, but the Knights did not score again until more than four minutes later. Another Carlson 3 snapped a 14-0 Crusaders run that effectively put the game away.
“I think at one point we did let our heads get too high, but we came out and we battled in the second half,” Carlson said. “And things didn’t go our way, but overall, I think we played tough.”
Carlson switched his number from 10 to 23 entering the season, playing in tribute to his late uncle, Richard Watts, a former player at Marseilles. Carlson’s smile grew widest when he mentioned Watts’ nickname, “Sparky.”
Johnson knows it will take time, but hopes the Knights channel their own happy memories from this postseason. If not for one of those indelible moments – David’s buzzer-beating 19-footer in Friday’s home regional final victory against Marmion – it’s possible Kaneland might not have advanced this far.
“It’s tough when you lose great kids, you know,” Johnson said. “You wish you could hold onto them all the time.”