Knights rally vs. Mustangs
The pains associated with growth made themselves crystal clear to Chicago Christian last Tuesday.
Specifically, it was during the third quarter of the Knights’ clash with Evergreen Park in Palos Heights that Christian’s youth wasn’t served well. An unsightly 10 turnovers, several of which led to Mustangs baskets, hampered the Knights in that period and turned a once-comfortable double-digit lead into a slight deficit.
“We just took the proverbial shot to the gut,” Christian coach Kevin Pittman said. “Athlete-to-athlete, we don’t stack up to Evergreen, but a lot of the wounds we suffered were self-inflicted through [things like] poor decisions and poor closeouts. In our estimation, we were in control of the game before that.”
The Knights never did rebuild a big edge, but they wound up having the final say anyway. Center Jay Spencer, one of five sophomores on the roster, gave it to Christian by scoring twice in the late going, the second bucket coming on a putback with 1:07 remaining.
From there, the Knights had to hang on as the Mustangs took three potential game-winning shots and almost got off a fourth before time expired. That last play was ruined by Christian, however, as the Knights broke up a lob pass that was designed to result in a tip-in.
Thus, Christian escaped with a hard-fought 52-51 win and pushed its season record over .500. The game was Evergreen’s opener.
“We got our heads above water — now, we’ve got to stay there,” Pittman said. “We’re a work in progress, but a lot of things are coming together. If we can build on that and not go backwards, that’d be big.
“All we needed [down the stretch] was a defensive board to turn it into a free-throw game, but [as a young team], we’re going to have to learn to handle the close ones. They’re going to have to go through that pressure cooker to come out better on the other side.”
Much of the pressure was on the Mustangs in the early going, thanks to a balanced Knights attack that featured four different players tallying in both the first and second stanzas. Junior guard Marcus Parker produced 11 of Christian’s 27 first-half markers and the hosts entered intermission with a nine-point advantage in hand.
“What surprised me again was our ability to score points,” Pittman said. “Evergreen Park is athletic, big — it was truly a case of men against boys, but we did a real nice job of playing to our strengths early.”
That changed dramatically in the third period, as the Mustangs cranked up their defensive pressure. The effect on the Knights (3-2) wasn’t immediately noticeable, but after Spencer’s field goal gave them a 35-26 edge, things rapidly went awry for Christian.
Four miscues over a five-possession span haunted the Knights; making the situation worse was the fact Evergreen scored after three of the turnovers. Jacquet McClendon’s 11 third-quarter points spurred the Mustangs, who also converted the second of two offensive rebounds into a basket following a Christian misfire.
McClendon (13 points, seven rebounds) and Issac Mathews (14 points, eight rebounds) were the visitors’ ringleaders in the contest.
“We were just trying to go too fast and became a little frazzled,” Pittman said. “A lot of our mistakes were young mistakes we have to correct quickly, but some of it was due to the speed of the game.”
Evergreen coach Pat Flannigan regretted not unleashing an aggressive defense earlier. Being the Mustangs’ first game of the season, Flannigan was unsure of what to expect from game officials, who have been instructed by the IHSA this winter to call hand-checking fouls more closely.
“I thought too much about it and over-planned for it, [so] I take a lot of the blame,” he said. “I was warned about the officiating, so we sat in a zone a little bit and weren’t being aggressive. [But] the officiating was good — that first night, I didn’t know they were out there.
“We had a real good third quarter. We should have come out the same way [before that], but we gave [the Knights] a lot of confidence and they ran with it.”
Flannigan admitted Evergreen “kind of ran out of gas a little bit” after that quarter, although the Mustangs stayed in the hunt the rest of the way. They and Christian swapped the lead four times in the late going, with McClendon handing Evergreen its last advantage at 51-50 with 1:33 remaining.
That bucket followed one by Spencer, who kept a ball from going out of bounds and then threw in a reverse layup. He finished the night with 14 points and seven rebounds. Parker (18 points, four assists), Blaine Wright (nine points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals) and sophomore Daylon Washington (seven points, three assists) were other Christian notables.
Pittman isn’t too surprised to see some of his youngest players stepping forward as contributors so soon.
“They’re talented enough to be there on the varsity,” he said of his sophomore quintet. “And we want to coach them for three full years and have them ready to lead as juniors instead of just getting one [big] season out of them.
“We’re not [completely] satisfied with where we’re sitting, but I [still] like where we’re sitting. That doesn’t mean I won’t be pulling my hair out at times, but at [other] times I thought we’ve played pretty well.”
One thing Pittman liked very much was the Knights’ 16 transition baskets. That helped Christian post a 45 percent success rate from the floor, which was vastly superior to Evergreen’s 28 percent showing.
Not so endearing to Pittman was the Mustangs’ domination on the glass. Thanks to a slew of offensive rebounds, Evergreen was able to launch a total of 70 shots, 19 more than the Knights.
TF South 63
Evergreen Park 61
Four Mustangs scored in double figures, but a basket by the Rebels in the final 1.2 seconds sent Evergreen down to its second straight heartbreaking defeat Friday night.
“We had a chance to win both [games last week],” Flannigan said. “We had the ball in our hands and we missed the shots.”
Mathews, who notched a team-high 16 points for the Mustangs (0-2, 0-1 South Suburban Conference), missed a jumper just before TF South dropped in its game-winning shot. His two free throws had helped Evergreen fight back from a five-point deficit in the last minute-and-a-half, and McClendon (11 points) also delivered a clutch bucket that tied the score at 61.
A Rebels turnover at the 1:04 mark got the ball back for the Mustangs, and Flannigan wanted them to play for the final shot. Unfortunately for Evergreen, less than two seconds was still too much time to leave the Rebels.
While the Mustangs’ 31 percent shooting didn’t represent much of an improvement over their Tuesday effort versus Chicago Christian, they did sink 87 percent of their free throws (21-of-24) and were guilty of just nine turnovers.
“I slept a lot better after the TF South game,” Flannigan said. “I thought we got better and we played our hearts out.
“We’re going to get on the right side of a couple of these real soon. We’ve got talent and I think we can play with anybody.”
Tony Weathersby and Tobi Oladejo chipped in 14 and 12 points, respectively, for Evergreen, which visits Tinley Park tonight. It hosted TF North in another SSC crossover game this past Tuesday.
Evergreen Park 8 10 24 9 - 51
Chgo. Christian 13 14 13 12 - 52
Evergreen Park Scoring: Mathews 14, McClendon 13. Rebounds: Mathews 8, McClendon 7.
Chicago Christian Scoring: Parker 18, Spencer 14, Wright 9, Washington 7, Fitzpatrick 2, Wolterink 2. Rebounds: Wright 8, Spencer 7. Assists: Parker 4. Steals: Wright 3.
TF South 18 15 16 14 - 63
Evergreen Park 13 19 13 16 - 61
Evergreen Park Scoring: Mathews 16, Weathersby 14, Oladejo 12, McClendon 11, Hughes 5, Brown 2, Cheatham 1. Rebounds: Cheatham 7. Steals: Brown 2.