Singleton's emergence another storyline in tense rivalry

Singleton's emergence another storyline in tense rivalry

MONTICELLO — It's one of those rivalries that defines East Central Illinois high school sports: Monticello against St. Joseph-Ogden.

These Illini Prairie Conference foes met up in a girls' basketball sectional final earlier this month.

Tonight, the boys' hoopsters from Monticello (24-1) and SJ-O (26-3) will repeat the process at 7 p.m. in a Class 2A sectional semifinal at Maroa, the fourth time they've met in the sectional level this decade.

"They're playing for everything, (and) we're playing for everything," said Sages junior Benton Singleton, whose running layup with less than a second to play pushed Monticello past Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley in a regional final last week. "So I think since we have been a rival with them for the past few years, it would be big for our program (to win today)."

But tonight's game has a slightly different feel for the Singleton family. Benton's mother, Shannon, serves as a second-grade teacher at St. Joseph Grade School. Some of the present-day Spartans even have been her pupils in the past. And in his younger days, Benton would spend some of his spring break with such friends as SJ-O juniors Jack Cook and Joel Orcutt.

"It's one of those games where you hate that someone is going to go away sad," Shannon said. "They're both really good, well-deserving teams."

Benton will line up across from Cook and Orcutt, among others, tonight for a spot in 2A's Sweet 16. And the 6-foot-3 Sage can thank himself for that opportunity.

With Monticello and GCMS tied at 43 in last Friday's 2A Hoopeston Area Regional title bout, Singleton accepted a pass just above the free-throw line. Shadowed by Falcons star Mitch McNutt the entire way, Singleton swooped down and to the right before pressing up an off-balance, right-handed shot from a shade outside the paint.

"It felt good coming out of my hand, but I always check to make sure," said Benton, who was swarmed by some Monticello supporters before all involved realized GCMS had taken a timeout with eight-tenths of a second remaining. "I was looking back to see if it went in. I was kind of surprised."

Mom had a similar reaction from the now-shaking stands.

"You just ask yourself, 'Did that really happen?'" Shannon said. "And then you just get excited. It doesn't matter who ended the game that way because it's happened several times that way. It's never the same person, which is amazing."

The Falcons were unable to convert with their limited slice of time, handing the Sages their fourth consecutive regional crown. Benton's development from a sophomore role player to a junior averaging 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game — in addition to a game-best 17 versus GCMS — has proven critical for Monticello, even with three senior starters back from last year's team that placed fourth in state.

That deciding bucket against the Falcons encapsulated Benton's growth over the course of the current campaign.

"I just felt like they kind of trusted me more," he said. "It felt good that my teammates could trust me with the ball in that kind of situation, because I definitely trust them in that situation."

Benton tallied just five points on Jan. 30, when Monticello dumped host SJ-O 53-36 in IPC action. But he also contributed three rebounds and three blocked shots to the victorious outcome.

The Sage starting lineup's young gun is making his presence felt in a major way for a squad with state aspirations. And it's not just the guys on the hardwood who see it.

"I think that the seniors on the team have done amazing the way they have included him and pushed him to really play his game," Shannon said.

"I'm really thankful he gets to be a part of that."