Down the stretch, St. Viator coach Mike Howland understandably had a lot of confidence in his group on the floor.
And thats because over the last few years, seniors Kevin Hammarlund, Mayo Arogundade, Patrick Martin, Hugh Masterson and junior Ore Arogundade have developed quite a bit of chemistry with one another.
Just two years ago, the group was the starting five of a sophomore team that went 23-1.
Last season, all except Ore Arogundade made up a strong second unit of a Lions squad that won a regional championship.
In Thursday evenings Class 4A Waukegan sectional semifinal, those five ensured the Lions would go one step further than last season as No. 3 seed St. Viator made all of the big plays down the stretch to come from behind and beat No. 2 seed Zion Benton 65-62.
St. Viator (21-8) advances to its second sectional final in school history and will play No. 1 seed Stevenson (26-4) tonight.
Theyre resilient and we had a gut-check moment when I laid into them pretty good, Howland said. It was up to them respond, and they go out there and make big plays. The credit is spread all across the board.
We can all calm each other down, and we were able to use that tonight, even when we got down, said Hammarlund, who blocked Gabriel Ramirezs potential game-winning 3-point attempt with 4 seconds left.
We hit some huge shots, stuck together and got this win.
Stopping Zion-Benton superstar Milik Yarbrough was nearly impossible all night as the junior scored a game-high 39 points, including 23 straight for the Zee-Bees at one point in the first half.
After Yarbroughs old fashioned 3-point play gave him 35 points on the night and put Zion-Benton (25-6) up 53-47 with 7:15 left, Mayo Arogundade had a suggestion for Howland.
I told (Howland), Let me guard him. Whats the worst that can happen?
The 5-foot-11 senior point guard bodied the 6-foot-6 Yarbrough and held him to just 4 free throws the rest of the game.
That was not a coaching decision that was a Mayo decision, Howland said. He came over to me and goes, I want Milik. I said Fine, go for it, because we sure hadnt figured it out yet.
Obviously he has a couple of inches on me, couple pounds, but I tried to use my strength and quick feet, Mayo Arogundade said. Its all about just wanting it. Thats what crosses over to playing good defense.
With Yarbrough held in check, St. Viator went to work on the offensive end. Two free throws from Ore Arogundade, who scored 20 points and was 9-for-9 at the free throw line, kickstarted a 7-0 run that also included one of Hammarlunds 3 3-pointers.
Trailing 57-56, Martin (20 points) attacked the basket for a beautiful left-handed layup, plus a foul. He hit the ensuing free throw and after Yarbroughs two free throws resulted in the tenth tie of the game, Martin eyed his biggest shot of the night.
After a jab step at his defender, Martin had just enough room to get off a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key and after it swished through the hoop, the Lions held a 62-59 advantage with 1:20 left, a lead they wouldnt relinquish.
I actually didnt realize how far back I was until people told me it was like an NBA 3, Martin said of his fifth and final 3-pointer. I was just feeling it.
Hammarlund scored 7 of his 13 points in the third quarter to keep the Lions close. In addition to his defensive contributions, Mayo Arogundade had 9 points and 6 assists.
The toughest guys always come out on top, said a smiling Mayo Arogundade as he headed to the locker room.