CHAMPAIGN — It appeared as though the stars had aligned for a rare feat in the Class 3A boys’ basketball postseason draw this year.
All four teams that reached the state tournament last season appeared destined to return to the same stage for another shot at a state championship.
Mark Chambers‘ East St. Louis program had other ideas.
While 2022 3A state tournament teams Metamora (runner-up), St. Ignatius (third place) and Simeon (fourth place) all booked repeat trips to State Farm Center for Friday’s two semifinal games, the Flyers stunned reigning state champion Sacred Heart-Griffin 59-56 in a double-overtime super-sectional thriller on Monday night in Springfield to claim the final 3A spot at state.
Chambers said he and his players viewed a super-sectional defeat at SHG’s hands last season as a missed opportunity.
So the current Flyers (25-8) simply were claiming an accomplishment they believed had been ripped away from them one year prior, led this time by senior guard and Kansas State men’s basketball signee Macaleab Rich. Rich, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior guard, leads the Flyers in scoring (19.7 points), rebounding (9.0) and assists (3.4).
East St. Louis isn’t far removed from a state tournament berth, winning the 2019 Class 3A title. None of the current Flyers were part of that roster.
“We don’t worry about that,” said Chambers, who is closing out his fifth full season at East St. Louis. “We felt like we were headed back in ’20 (advancing to a sectional final ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic) after we won it in ’19. And ’22, we went to the Elite Eight, which we felt as if we should have been there.
“Our program, we feel as if we’re right where we want to be. ... And our kids are like, ‘Let’s go.’ They’re ready to go.”
The Flyers will tangle with Metamora (32-2) in Friday’s 11:45 a.m. semifinal on Lou Henson Court. The Redbirds, along with Simeon and St. Ignatius, all return athletes familiar with playing in a state tournament in Champaign.
“New kids on the block, I wouldn’t necessarily call us that,” Chambers said with a chuckle. “Compared to the (other) guys, obviously they were there last year. We just want to show that we belong there, and we’re going to compete at a very, very high level.”
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One of coach Matt Monroe‘s St. Ignatius athletes was quick to express a big goal once last season’s Wolfpack ended its 3A state tournament run.
“After we beat Simeon in the third-place game ... I asked everyone to say something that they appreciate about the team and something they learned about this experience and something they looked forward to in the future,” Monroe said. “Phoenix said, ‘Coach, I want to go down (to state) every single year. This is our home away from home. Let’s go.’”
Phoenix is then-freshman Phoenix Gill.
“I didn’t want to call him out,” Monroe said. “So we’re at our banquet a couple weeks later, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, so and so said they wanted to go down to state all four years. I won’t mention who it is.’ Well, he was the only freshman on the team.”
Gill didn’t see any time on the court last season at State Farm Center as St. Ignatius posted a 1-1 record.
He’s poised to provide the Wolfpack a much larger effect this season.
Now a sophomore starter at guard, the 6-foot-3, 165-pound Gill is averaging 11.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists for St. Ignatius (24-11) prior to its 3A semifinal game at 10 a.m. Friday versus Simeon (30-3).
Those paying attention last season also might recall that Gill is the son of former Illinois men’s basketball standout and 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. The younger Gill already holds an offer from Illinois and wears the same No. 13 his dad did helping the Flyin’ Illini reach the 1989 Final Four.
“(Phoenix has) got a great appreciation for the name that goes on the back of his jersey, but he’s also his own individual who’s carved his own path,” Monroe said. “For Kendall and Phoenix, it is definitely going to be a cool thing.”
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Looking strictly at the final Associated Press 4A poll of the regular season, Downers Grove North could’ve been given a fighting chance of becoming a state semifinalist.
Coach James Thomas‘ Trojans received the 11th-most votes in the entire class. Behind fellow 4A semifinalists Benet (ranked first), Moline (ranked second) and New Trier (ranked eighth), but still highly regarded.
When your program knocks off the Nos. 10, 5 and 4 teams in that same poll, in that order, there still tends to be some surprise vibes attached to your accomplishments.
That’s what Downers Grove North had to do to find its way to State Farm Center, defeating Whitney Young, Hinsdale Central and Chicago Kenwood in its last three games to reach Champaign.
“These kids all play AAU. They get in big games against big players. They lace them up like everybody else does and go out there and have fun,” Thomas said. “We try to kind of keep it as basic as we possibly can and let them be the best versions of themselves and kind of let the chips fall where they may.”
Downers Grove North (32-3) continues its climb up that AP poll when it faces Moline (33-3) at 4:15 p.m. Friday in a 4A state semifinal game.
“We always talk about just going 1-0,” Thomas said. “When you guys ask about the moment and all that stuff, we honestly just try to enjoy each other’s company. ... We just try to keep on keeping on.”
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Venerable IHSA television play-by-play man Dave Bernhard needed to recheck his notes before starting Tuesday’s pre-state teleconference interview with New Trier coach Scott Fricke.
“The last time New Trier was down (at state) was,” Bernhard began before pausing.
Fricke helpfully jumped in with an answer of “2002.”
“I can’t believe that,” Bernhard followed. “There have been so many great teams at New Trier.”
“The last time we were in the super-sectional was 2013, and we had to go play against Jabari Parker and (Jaylon) Tate and (Kendrick) Nunn — three NBA guys,” Fricke said, referencing a 4A game against eventual state champion Simeon a decade ago. “It seemed like our sectional matched up with the city sectional for many years, and it obviously rotates. Now, we’re against the west suburbs.”
New Trier (31-4) took advantage of this opportunity and will play in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. Class 4A state semifinal versus Benet (34-1) in Champaign.
Not that it was an easy road for the Trevians to reach State Farm Center, who after beating Glenbrook South and Glenbrook North by a combined three points at the sectional level held off Libertyville 54-48 on Monday night in a super-sectional game in Hoffman Estates.
“It was just a relief to play a team that we hadn’t played this year in the super-sectional,” Fricke said. “We’ve had a couple games that could’ve went either way, and our kids persevered.”
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Benet marches into the 4A semifinals, in which they’ll face New Trier (31-4) at 2:30 p.m. Friday, with just one loss.
Coach Gene Heidkamp‘s Redwings (34-1) are the only team that can say that out of all 16 teams who qualified for the state tournament.
As often seems to be the case, however, Heidkamp seemed to learn more about his squad from that one defeat than from any of its victories.
Although, Benet’s only loss came by a 52-49 margin to Simeon in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament championship game on Dec. 30. Since then, Benet has won 18 straight games going into Friday.
“When you make it to the championship game at Pontiac, you know you’ve got a really good team,” said Heidkamp, in his 15th season leading the Redwings. “We got down 20 in the first half, and came back and cut it to one with about 20 seconds left and had a chance to tie at the buzzer.”
That result instead stands as a notch in Simeon’s belt rather than Benet’s. But Heidkamp doesn’t seem to mind.
“That resolve that (we) showed in that game, even though we didn’t win the game,” Heidkamp said, “I think it made believers out of some people that these guys were for real.”