Senior guard propels Stagg past Eagles, Spartans
The one-man gang has his partner back.
While Max Strus has been Stagg’s unquestioned on-court leader this winter, he was not expected to go it alone. And certainly on a number of occasions, the Chargers’ senior standout has been surrounded by productive teammates.
But Kevin White, a returning all-area player, has endured somewhat spotty performances in his final prep campaign and not consistently given Strus the kind of support necessary to keep opposing defenses honest. In truth, White has rarely operated at his physical peak, but Stagg coach John Daniels was keeping his fingers crossed that a breakthrough would occur.
And it finally did last week. White dropped in 37 points over two games and proved quite the able accomplice for Strus, who totaled 49. Their dual efforts weren’t wasted, either, as the Chargers routed Oak Lawn 64-36 in a Wednesday nonconference clash and then eased past Sandburg 66-60 in a SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue contest Friday night in Orland Park.
“I think this week’s headline is, ‘Kevin is back,’” Daniels said. “He played really well. Kevin had a lot of energy and looked real healthy this [past] week, and he played for us like he did last year. If he’s moving and attacking, that’s when he’s at his best.
“I know he’s been frustrated with his play, but it’s hard [to function properly] when you’re banged up. He’s not a big, physical specimen; he relies on his speed. We’ve got to have Kevin play right for us to have a chance [to succeed in the postseason].”
White totaled 16 points and six assists versus Sandburg, and his layup was part of a 5-0 getaway in the third period that gave the Chargers (19-7, 7-5) a hefty 41-22 edge and appeared to put the Eagles on the precipice.
“That lead helped us because their [later] run didn’t give them the lead,” Daniels said.
Sandburg did indeed catch fire and put some heat on Stagg. The Eagles were within three of the Chargers a few times, and had Peter Paxinos’ long-range try settled into the cylinder instead of rolling back out on one fourth-quarter possession, the hosts would have found themselves even.
“I’m real proud of the kids’ effort in coming back,” said Sandburg coach Todd Allen, whose club committed 11 of its 17 turnovers in the first half, including eight in the opening stanza.
“John always has his team well-prepared and we were staring down at a 19-point deficit before the second half basically gets started. I had a few things to say to [our athletes] about competing [during a timeout].”
Daniels wasn’t surprised to see the Eagles, who had beaten Stagg earlier this season at the United Center, rally.
“Todd really does a good job of putting his players in a position of strength,” Daniels said. “And they really battled. It was a typical Stagg-Sandburg emotional basketball game.”
Daniels had the Chargers hold the ball for a bit in an attempt to pull the Eagles (9-15, 5-7) out of their zone defense, but Allen thought that strategy actually gave his team “a jump start to pick up our intensity.” From an offensive standpoint, Niko Cahue (18 points), Eric Straka (15) and Niko Kogionis (13 points) were Sandburg’s ringleaders.
Stagg countered with its own trio of double-figure scorers. In addition to White and Strus (23 points), Nick Sims (13 points) made his presence felt for the Chargers. Sims and Strus combined to go 9-of-10 from the foul line in the fourth stanza, a display that allowed the visitors to effectively thwart the Eagles’ comeback bid.
“Max Strus is probably the second-best player on the south side outside of [Marian Catholic’s] Tyler Ulis,” Allen said.
While Sandburg — which was slated to complete its regular-season schedule this week with SWSC Blue matchups against Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook —doesn’t boast an impressive ledger, Allen called that deceiving. Included among the Eagles’ defeats thus far are two overtime verdicts and two others that came by just one point.
“We chart all our possessions,” Allen said. “We’ve had over 1,500 this year — take away five of those and we could easily be 13-11, or better. With the schedule we play, if we were 13-11 [right now], I think everybody would be ecstatic, including me.
“Our margin for error is so slim, but we’re not hanging our heads just yet. We had a losing record last year and wound up playing for a regional championship.”
Stagg closes out its slate with SWSC Blue games against Joliet Central and Joliet West. With one more triumph, the Chargers will reach the 20-win plateau for the fourth time during Daniels’ coaching tenure. Prior to his arrival in Palos Hills 11 seasons ago, Stagg logged 20 victories only once in 40 years.
Oak Lawn 36
White got the Chargers off and running last Wednesday as he piled up 14 first-quarter points and guided Stagg to a 24-7 edge after eight minutes. White shot 10-of-11 from the floor for the game to total 21 points, while Strus also connected more than 50 percent of the time en route to 26.
“We did a great job on everyone else,” Spartans coach Jason Rhodes said. “I wish that had been reversed because those two guys really hurt us. We had no answer for Strus - we have nobody who can match his length and he was outstanding.”
“He’s become so athletic and good around the rim,” Daniels said of Strus. “He’s the best player in our school’s history. He does things you just can’t coach.”
The Chargers notched the contest’s first 10 points and never veered off-course. Oak Lawn had a few chances early after it broke Stagg’s press, but the Spartans missed three layups and then, to compound matters, couldn’t prevent the hosts from tallying at the other end of the court.
“It was bad—I don’t know what else to say,” Rhodes said. “We wanted to keep the score in the 40s [because] we saw Lockport go down to the wire with them playing that way, but we couldn’t do that. They were off to the races right away and we’re not the type of team that can come back from large deficits.”
Oak Lawn trailed by 19 points at halftime and by 33 at the end of three quarters. The Chargers’ 52 percent accuracy hindered the Spartans, as did their own 31 percent shooting display. Fifteen miscues added to Oak Lawn’s misery.
“He had a good game plan,” Daniels said of Rhodes. “When you lose a few games early, like Oak Lawn did, it’s real easy to lose a group as a coach, but they’ve really, really improved.
“It was nice to get that lead. The key to the first and third quarters was we were able to get stops and get in transition. We never pulled away like that all year, but the concentration’s been back on defense.
“If we’re going to compete for a regional [title], we have to play better defense [like we did here].”
David Stacy had 12 points to be the Spartans’ only double-digit scorer. He also grabbed five rebounds and distributed a couple of assists. Justin Schutt (eight points, two assists) and Josh Prince (seven points, five rebounds) were other Oak Lawn notables, although Daniels felt his tandem of Sims and Anthony Gardner made Stacy and Prince work hard for the points they garnered.
It has not been a prosperous 2013-14 campaign for the Thunderbolts, but they scored what might have been their biggest win of the season last Tuesday as they nipped their District 230 sister school.
For sure, Allen wasn’t hesitant about how to classify the contest.
“That was probably the worst loss we’ve had all year,” he said. “It’s not how we wanted to play against Andrew. I thought the second half was just very poor on our part.”
That half came on the heels of an opening one the Eagles largely dominated. The reversal of fortunes, in Allen’s view, began in the final eight seconds of the second period.
Up 30-16, Sandburg was poised to increase its edge after a steal. Andrew fouled, but the Eagles misfired twice at the line and the T’bolts closed with a 3-point basket. They then outscored Sandburg 10-2 through the first four minutes of the third frame as the latter had three turnovers on its first four possessions of the second half.
“We just stopped passing the basketball and stopped defending,” said Allen, whose team hit only four field goals in the last 16 minutes.
With Cahue (18 points, four rebounds), Kogionis (11 points) and Alec Martinez (10 points six assists) leading the way, the Eagles shrugged off their shortcomings and remained on the verge of victory. However, they were unable to maintain their grip on a four-point lead in the final 20 seconds.
Despite having three fouls to give, Sandburg let an Andrew player get free on an isolation play. Not only did the T’bolts tally, but it became a three-point play. After the Eagles missed the front end of an ensuing 1-and-1, Andrew scored again.
Sandburg still had another opportunity to prevail after stealing an inbounds pass near midcourt, but it was unable to capitalize on a 2-on-1 break as it missed a layup.
“You should be able to close out a game like that, but we had some major mental lapses defensively,” Allen said. “It was a very disappointing loss.”
Stagg 16 20 12 18 - 66
Sandburg 10 12 16 22 - 60
Stagg Scoring: Strus 23, White 16, Sims 13, Goral 7, Contant 6, Gardner 1. Rebounds: Strus 10. Assists: White 6.
Sandburg Scoring: Cahue 18, Straka 15, Kogionis 13, T. Demogerontas 9, Paxinos 3, Ruzevich 2.
Oak Lawn 7 12 7 10 - 36
Stagg 24 10 25 5 - 64
Oak Lawn Scoring: Stacy 12, Schutt 8, Prince 7, Jones 3, Alvarado 2, Cosenza 2, Samra 2. Rebounds: Prince 5, Stacy 5. Assists: Samra 2, Schutt 2, Stacy 2.
Stagg Scoring: Strus 26, White 21, Sims 5, Kolpak 4, Contant 3, El Hanounny 3, Gardner 2. Rebounds: Strus 8. Assists: White 6.
Sandburg 13 17 7 10 - 47
Andrew 6 13 14 15 - 48
Sandburg Scoring: Cahue 18, Kogionis 11, Martinez 10, Straka 4, Ruzevich 2, Vorva 2. Rebounds: Cahue 4, Straka 4. Assists: Martinez 6.