Coach happy as Astros upend SSC Red-leading Bulldogs
Tony Chiuccariello gave thanks on a different holiday than everyone else.
While Shepard’s veteran coach probably expressed gratitude for several things in his life at Thanksgiving, basketball -- and specifically the Astros’ game against rival Richards in the season-opening District 218 Tournament -- likely wasn’t among those items. When the sister schools met the first time, it was all Bulldogs, as the Oak Lawn crew made off with a 28-point triumph.
Since then, Richards has lived a bit of an up-and-down existence on the court, although it has still played well enough to sit atop the South Suburban Conference Red standings. And when they visited Palos Heights Friday night, the Bulldogs had a chance to lock up at least a share of their ninth straight league championship.
Shepard, however, had other ideas, and on Valentine’s Day the Astros warmed their boss’ heart with a well-timed clutch performance. Not unexpectedly, Richards was a handful, but when Jacob Littleton nailed a series of free throws in the waning moments, Shepard was able to secure for itself an important 71-67 win.
By defeating the Bulldogs for only the second time since 2002, the second-place Astros closed to within a game of the division leaders. Both teams had three conference contests remaining on the schedule at the start of the current week.
While Chiuccariello didn’t want to speculate on what may lie ahead for his club, he was more than willing to praise Shepard athletes for a job well done versus Richards.
“Coaches don’t win games; players win games,” Chiuccariello said. “[And] our kids played really hard. They played above their potential.
“Everything they had, they used. They maxed out [in that regard] on Friday.”
Chiuccariello didn’t get any argument to the contrary from his coaching counterpart.
“They just outplayed us from the start,” Richards leader John Chappetto said. “They played together and shared the ball, and we didn’t. They found every little bit of weakness we had and exploited it.
“They played pretty good defense -- they had a great game plan, stuck to it and played hard. On offense, they [frequently] beat us down the floor.”
Chappetto pointed to an early Astros possession as an illustration of what kind of night it was for his squad. In that particular instance, Shepard fired up an airball, but senior Darren Cohen grabbed it and scored on a short shot.
“They had a lot of plays like that,” Chappetto said.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs (14-10, 7-3) not only refused to crumble, they inched in front during the fourth quarter. Chicago State University-bound center Josh Meier was Richards’ ringleader as he tallied 12 of his 23 points over the last eight minutes, four of them coming on consecutive alley-oop dunks.
“We finally figured out how to score,” Chappetto said. “We went to Meier more often, and whatever he missed he cleaned up.”
Fortunately for Shepard (9-13, 6-4), Littleton countered Meier’s heroics with 12 fourth-period points of his own, eight of which were delivered at the foul line in the final 75 seconds.
“He’s got ice water in his veins,” Chiuccariello said of Littleton, who registered 19 points and five assists on the Astros’ behalf.
And unlike in some other outings, Littleton wasn’t a one-man gang. Senior Kyle Longfield, who missed a significant chunk of time this winter because of a leg injury, stepped forward to supply Shepard with 20 points and nine rebounds in “the best game I’ve seen him play,” according to Chiuccariello.
Longfield contributed a basket to the Astros’ late surge, but also pivotal were the three charges he drew during the evening, one of which came at crunch time. Two Longfield free throws, plus hoops by Nick Heidinger and Zack Haxel were part of a 6-0 spurt that firmed up the hosts’ grip on their lead.
Prior to that, Chiuccariello was having flashbacks to last year, when Shepard was unable to hold onto a 13-point advantage in the fourth frame and Richards staged a winning rally.
“I had a little bit of that [same] feeling,” Chiuccariello said. “We have a great deal of respect for their program, but we didn’t hype this game at all. We just prepared for Richards like a normal game, and we said before the game, ‘Don’t leave this locker room if you don’t think you can win.
“I’ve used the word ‘resiliency’ a lot, but sometimes [our kids] impress me with how they bounce back.”
The Astros lost the battle of the boards by a 46-31 margin, but offset that shortage by connecting on a higher percentage of field-goal tries. Shepard’s 41 percent accuracy was eight points better than the Bulldogs’ display, and the Astros were also superior at the charity stripe (73 percent to 60) and in the turnovers category (13 miscues to Richards’ 17).
Chappetto wasn’t shocked at Shepard’s ability to execute a turnaround against his club.
“The first game was so long ago and we had a different kind of makeup,” he said. “Our attitude is nowhere near what it was. We didn’t play with as much energy [as the Astros] and it’s been like a regression for us.
“Are we 14-10 or are we 7-10 after a 7-0 start? I think we’re more of a 7-10 team right now, but nobody’s going to feel sorry for you, and they shouldn’t. They’re licking their chops [about playing us], and some teams have taken advantage.
“It doesn’t matter how angry we get if we don’t play better.”
Spencer Tears and Dedrick Shannon added 16 and 10 points, respectively, for Richards, which attempted to secure a piece of the SSC Red title this past Tuesday against Reavis. On tap for the Bulldogs on Friday is a cross-town visit to Oak Lawn High School.
The Astros’ first-ever encounter with the Blue Devils ended in a tough defeat for the locals, who were victimized by a buzzer-beating bucket last Tuesday.
Right before that, Shepard appeared to have gone ahead, but Littleton’s layup was erased by an offensive foul whistled against him. The play had begun after Littleton rebounded a Peotone miss, and with a 3-on-3 developing Chiuccariello opted to not call the timeout he had been contemplating.
“I was second-guessing myself for 24 hours,” he said. “I liked that situation, so I didn’t do anything.
“Did I do the right thing? There are two schools of thought, but if I had to do it over, I’d do the same thing. You let [Littleton] push it and hope the result is better.”
Cohen (15 points, three assists) and Littleton (11 points, six rebounds, three assists) were the Astros’ main men. Shepard shot just 36 percent from the floor, and a drought that lasted for seven minutes of the third quarter put it in an especially difficult predicament.
“We didn’t hit shots obviously, but there were some unforced errors,” Chiuccariello said. “Our execution wasn’t very good.”
Amazingly, the Astros were facing only a three-point deficit entering the fourth period, and when Littleton popped in a 3-pointer off a Heidinger screen at the 48-second mark, the visitors found themselves in a 44-all tie.
“They’re a smaller school, but they’re fundamentally sound and they’ve got good shooters,” Chiuccariello said of the Blue Devils. “They’re in the same summer league as us and we played them twice then, so I’m glad they were on the schedule. They had a good crowd, we were welcomed, and it was a good experience for us.”
SSC Red road games at Eisenhower and Reavis were on the docket for Shepard this week.
Shepard 13 12 4 15 - 44
Peotone 9 10 13 14 - 46
Shepard Scoring: Cohen 15, Littleton 11, Gorski 7, Heidinger 7, Lawson 2, Witherspoon 2. Rebounds: Littleton 6. Assists: Cohen 3, Littleton 3.
Richards 19 11 16 21 - 67
Shepard 19 14 15 23 - 71
Richards Scoring: Meier 23, Tears 16, Shannon 11, Alexander 7, Cottrell 4, Anagnostopolous 2, Catledge 2, Listenbee 2. Rebounds: Meier 13.
Shepard Scoring: Longfield 20, Littleton 19, Cohen 8, Heidinger 7, Lawson 7, Haxel 5, Witherspoon 3, Gorski 2. Rebounds: Longfield 9. Assists: Littleton 5.