Every team has a weakness.
Even a team like North Chicago, which boasts one of the top scorers in the state in Aaron Simpson (31 ppg) and cruised through its North Suburban Conference Prairie Division schedule this winter with a spotless 12-0 record, can be vulnerable at times.
Lakes exposed that weakness and that vulnerability on Friday night. The problem for the Eagles was that they weren't able to do enough about it, and North Chicago wound up escaping a jam-packed Grayslake Central fieldhouse with a 69-59 victory over the Eagles in a Class 3A sectional title game.
The Warhawks, who move to 23-6 and into Tuesday's supersectional game against Chicago Marshall at Hoffman Estates, have won sectional titles in four of the last five years and are gunning for their second consecutive trip downstate. North Chicago placed fourth last year in Class 3A.
"We haven't been able to get over that hump of putting teams away," North Chicago coach Gerald Coleman said. "It's been a problem for us all year. We've had games where we'll get up, we'll be winning (significantly) and then we'll lose (the lead) in the end because we do some things that aren't very smart. We've got to work on that."
North Chicago, up 39-29 at halftime, sat on a comfy 55-40 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Warhawks may have gotten a bit too comfy because they allowed Lakes to methodically cut into that lead. With about three minutes left, North Chicago was up by only 6 points.
"We let down our guard. We took our foot off the pedal," said North Chicago sophomore forward Kurt Hall, who finished with 20 points. "We just got a little bit too big-headed. We thought we were up by too much for them to make a comeback."
Lakes, which closes out its most successful season in school history with a 20-11 record, came back on the strength of some drives to the basket by guards Jay-Jay Elvir and Direll Clark, a huge 3-pointer by Tanner Blain and the tough interior defense and rebounding of center Justin Schneider.
"Lakes never gives up. That's a good team. They gave us a workout," said Simpson, who poured in a game-high 27 points. "We need to learn how to keep a lead and finish out games."
The Warhawks got some unexpected help from Lakes this time around.
With 1:25 left, North Chicago was whistled for a foul on a Clark drive to the basket. A technical foul was also called on the Warhawks, which gave Lakes four straight free throw attempts.
But the Eagles, down 8 points at the time, hit just one of the four free throws. In fact, they were just 4-of-11 from the line in the fourth quarter, a problem that was magnified by the fact that they also missed some easy layups and shots in the paint down the stretch. On the game, the Eagles hit just 12-of-24 free throws.
"This is rough" said Elvir, who led Lakes in scoring with 15 points. "We had a chance, I just didn't finish. We didn't finish. We didn't capitalize, we couldn't get shots to fall.
"It's just tough because we played (North Chicago) so hard three times this year (including an overtime loss in December). We wanted to get another chance at North Chicago but we came out shaky and had to get back into it. We did that a little bit, but they're a tough team."
Lakes also got double-figures from Clark (13 points) and Schneider (12 points), who took a couple of clutch charges during the fourth-quarter rally.
"We really thought we could beat those guys," Schneider said of the Warhawks. "We just didn't come out good enough early on and we made a lot of mistakes and stupid turnovers and gave up second-chance points.
"But we got back in because we didn't want it to end. We wanted to keep making history and keep winning and set the bar higher for the next teams to come (at Lakes)."
Lakes posted just its second 20-win season in school history this year and also won its first-ever regional championship. Not bad after a 9-20 season just one year ago.
"This team has fought all season and we fought back into this one. I couldn't be prouder," Lakes coach Chris Snyder said. "It's probably hard right now for our guys to see what they've done this season, but after a day or two once the pain has subsided hopefully they can step back and see what a special thing they did here. It was a fun run getting to the Sweet 16. I was proud just to be a part of it. They were a great group to work with. It's just never easy when it ends because it's such a final feeling."