‘Resilient’ Astros knock off TF North
Few would argue that TF North has been a South Suburban Conference stalwart in basketball ever since the league was initially formed.
Thus, any win over the Meteors is considered a satisfying accomplishment. And, in Shepard’s case, it has also been a somewhat rare one.
“We beat TF North two years ago at the buzzer,” Astros coach Tony Chiuccariello said, “but we don’t beat them very often.”
The odds of Shepard reversing its fortunes Friday night in Palos Heights appeared rather long, especially since the Astros were coming off an emotionally taxing setback against TF South. What made Tuesday’s outcome difficult for Chiuccariello and his players to swallow was that, until a disastrous fourth quarter unfolded, Shepard had been in a reasonably good position to succeed.
However, the Astros surprised Chiuccariello with a spirited practice session on Wednesday, and that energy carried over into Friday. Despite dealing with a distinct height differential that favored TF North, Shepard did enough things right to make off with a 51-42 triumph.
“They have nice size and they absolutely dominated us on the boards, but the boys were very resilient,” Chiuccariello said. “We battled pretty hard and the kids did a great job. What helped us was we shot the ball very well and we did play good defense.
“You hope this is going to build us some momentum the rest of the way and we’re going to have greater success [overall].”
If the Astros (7-9, 4-3) continue to perform in a manner similar to Friday’s, such a thing certainly seems possible. Although the Meteors out-rebounded Shepard 34-21 and collected 15 offensive boards, the visitors actually made four fewer baskets while launching 16 additional shots.
TF North’s 29 percent accuracy rate paled in comparison to the Astros’ season-best mark of 54, and Chiuccariello liked the fact that seven of his athletes reached the scoring column.
“We played good team basketball,” he said. “We’re a much better team when we move the ball around.”
Chiuccariello pointed to a few third-period sequences as the perfect illustrations of what Shepard was all about on this occasion. Twice, Jacob Littleton broke the Meteors’ defensive press and earned an assist as both Kenny Gorski and Zack Haxel converted Littleton skip passes into buckets. Another time, Gorski patiently waited to find an open Malcolm Lawson in the corner and the latter then fired in a 3-pointer.
Those hoops were keys to a 17-10 scoring edge that lifted the Astros into a 40-30 lead after 24 minutes. TF North wasn’t about to quietly surrender, however, and it eventually stormed back to within three during the final stanza.
But that’s when Shepard flexed some defensive muscle. The Astros recorded three straight stops, limiting the Meteors to just one shot on each possession, and augmented those shows of resistance with some timely scoring.
After Darren Cohen and Nick Heidinger sank a free throw apiece to extend Shepard’s advantage to 46-41, Yakov Witherspoon administered the knockout blow by hitting back-to-back baskets, the second being a layup after the Astros executed another press break.
Lawson (13 points) and Littleton (11 points, seven assists) were Shepard’s offensive ringleaders, but Chiuccariello appreciated the level of scoring balance behind the duo. Heidinger complemented his five points with a team-best seven rebounds.
The Astros, who remained two games in arrears of SSC Red-leading Richards, tangles with Evergreen Park on Friday.
TF South 55
The only thing preventing the Astros from gaining a sweep of their two District 215 foes last week was a Tuesday fourth quarter Chiuccariello would love to forget.
Down just 36-30 entering the period after two Witherspoon steals led to late hoops for himself and Cohen at the conclusion of the previous frame, Shepard saw its forward progress abruptly halted by a sudden cold spell.
“We definitely had momentum at the end of the third quarter,” Chiuccariello said. “[But] we could not buy a basket [after that]. We kept driving the lane, but we weren’t getting to the free-throw line, either.”
The Astros had only three opportunities at the charity stripe, compared to 17 for the Rebels. However, that was only part of Shepard’s problem — also plaguing it were a rebounding shortage (30-23), five more turnovers (17-12) and sub-par shooting (33 percent). TF South clicked on exactly half of its 46 field-goal tries, three of which immediately resulted from Astros miscues in the fourth quarter and helped seal the visitors’ fate.
Interestingly, Shepard’s late-game fade ran completely counter to its earlier exhibition. Chiuccariello called the game’s opening stanza “probably our best energy quarter against a quality opponent all year,” but the Astros were still left to chase in the second half after the Rebels took a 24-21 lead into the break.
Cohen and Littleton combined for 25 points and 13 rebounds, but Shepard’s attack was relatively silent after that as no one else netted more than four points.
Shepard 13 8 9 5 - 35
TF South 13 11 12 19 - 55
Shepard Scoring: Cohen 15, Littleton 10, Heidinger 4, Lawson 2, Prater 2, Witherspoon 2. Rebounds: Cohen 8. Assists: Heidinger 3.
TF North 13 7 10 12 - 42
Shepard 11 12 17 11 - 51
Shepard Scoring: Lawson 13, Littleton 11, Witherspoon 8, Cohen 6, Heidinger 5, Gorski 4, Haxel 4. Rebounds: Heidinger 7. Assists: Littleton 7.