PAXTON — Was it the start? Was it the finish?
It’s debatable which was more important to top-seeded St. Joseph-Ogden in Friday’s semifinal game of the Sangamon Valley Conference tournament.
The only certainty is that it wasn’t the middle portion of the contest against Clifton Central.
The Spartans scored the game’s first 10 points and recovered from a fourth-quarter deficit to outscore the Comets 19-11 over the final 61/2 minutes to salvage a 58-51 triumph in a contest between squads that are each No. 1 seeds in upcoming Class 2A regionals.
During the 22 minutes, 11 seconds that SJ-O wasn’t either streaking to a quick start or completing a powerful finish, Clifton held nearly a 2-to-1 advantage in points, 47-29.
“We relaxed too much on both ends,” SJ-O coach Brian Brooks said.
Nate Michael sparked the Spartans’ early surge, scoring 12 of his game-high 24 points in the opening 5:35. Louis Acklin was the second-half catalyst, scoring all 11 of his points after intermission.
“I don’t know what it was,” Acklin said, “but we got very lackadaisical.”
The bottom line was that SJ-O (20-2) reached the 20-win mark and advanced into today’s tournament championship game against Cissna Park at Parkland College, an opponent that is a No. 1 Class 1A regional seed.
“You’d like to win prettier than that, but we’re there (in the finals) nonetheless, and it still feels good,” Acklin said.
Brooks could point to plenty of reasons for the triumph.
His team committed one second-half turnover (five overall) and drained 10 of 12 fourth-period free throws, including six in a row by Michael in the last 39 seconds.
“Michael was the difference,” Brooks said. “He played exceptionally well with his scoring, passing and hitting big free throws.”
The Comets (14-8) never led until the final half-minute of the third quarter, but SJ-O’s Aaron Woller put the Spartans back in command with a buzzer-beating layup, 39-38.
It was the senior’s lone basket.
“Our set broke down, and Aaron made a real big play,” Brooks said. “He guarded well, too, and gave us energy off the bench.”
After attempting three shots in the first half, Acklin was more assertive during the final 16 minutes. He hit a three-pointer in the opening minute of the third quarter to extend the SJ-O lead.
“He played like a senior, like every possession was his last one,” Brooks said.
Chase Patton (13 points) was the Spartans’ third double-digit scorer. SJ-O held a 30-21 rebounding edge, led by Acklin’s seven.
Cissna Park 50, St. Thomas More 47. The Timberwolves (16-8) posted their third win against the Sabers this season, and second by a three-point margin, in the semifinal nightcap.
Senior Cole Hasselbring drained 14 of 18 shots en route to a career-high 31 points for Cissna Park.
The Sabers tried everything to contain the 6-foot-4 standout.
“We played in front of him, and we played behind him,” STM coach Matt Kelley said. “He knows how to position himself and get a shooting opportunity.
“He’s a great player, not only in our area but in the state.”
After a back-and-forth second quarter, Cissna Park took the lead for good, 30-28, on a drive to the basket by Hasselbring 4.2 seconds before halftime.
St. Thomas More, 6 for 6 from the free throw line for the game and with a 29-20 rebounding edge, didn’t give in.
“These kids always battle,” Kelley said. “Even when things aren’t going their way, they always think they have a chance to win.”
Hasselbring said he had high hopes even before he arrived at the Paxton-Buckley-Loda gymnasium.
“All day I’ve been feeling good and expected to have a good game, but I didn’t think it would be that good,” he said.
He also hauled down a team-high eight rebounds.
The key for his success, Cissna Park coach Kevin Long said, was the play of the Timberwolves’ guards.
“We’ve been fine-tuning our halfcourt game and working on being more patient,” Long said. “Our perimeter guys did a good job reading what the defense was doing.”
CP’s 17-15 lead after one quarter was based on nine points from Hasselbring and eight from Alex Rabe. They were the only Timberwolves to finish with more than four points.
Josh Koerner led the Sabers (13-8) with 17 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Kevin Carroll had 11 points and Kyler Jones — whose last-second three-point attempt was short — scored nine points.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win, and that’s what you want,” Kelley said.
Long said the Sabers have improved each time his team has played them this season.
“They’ve grown by leaps and bounds,” he said, “and we can never get any separation. They’re a gritty team.”
Cissna Park is 0-3 this season against SJ-O, losing to the Spartans in the finals of the Leader Classic as well as in the consolation title game of the State Farm Classic.
Long offers no predictions but said, “We’re looking forward to playing on a college floor in the championship game. I hope we bring our ‘A’ game.
“We’ve been to the dance with them, and that will make it interesting. There’s not a lot of time to prepare.”
At Gilman. In the consolation bracket semifinals, Iroquois West edged Watseka 59-58 and Paxton-Buckley-Loda finished strong to beat Momence 55-48. PBL will take on Iroquois West in today’s fifth-place game.