In familiar territory
Eagles’ rally too late to save them
Sandburg went down this same road one too many times.
After the regular season concluded with five straight narrow losses, Eagles coach Todd Allen thought maybe circumstances had at long last improved for his team. Last Monday’s conquest of Eisenhower in the Cardinals’ own Class 4A regional certainly seemed to offer promise - Sandburg’s defense pitched a shutout for over five minutes of the fourth quarter, which paved the way for a 77-64 triumph in Blue Island.
“I don’t know what their low [point total] for the year is, but to hold that team scoreless for [almost] six minutes [means our] guys really did a great job,” Allen said. “Once we adjusted to the quick subbing and their shooting 3s from 3 feet behind the line, we kind of got our legs under us.”
Those legs held up the entire evening in the face of the Cardinals’ preferred nonstop, up-tempo style, but there also was little time for the Eagles to recover from that experience. One night later, they squared off with No. 2 sectional seed Thornwood in a semifinal, and as had happened so many times near the end of the season, Sandburg fell behind early and then had to scramble.
And just like before, the Eagles did. What had looked like an impossible-to-climb-out-of 21-point hole suddenly got reduced substantially. Two 3-point baskets from Niko Kogionis and a couple of conventional three-point plays by Niko Cahue were at the root of the comeback, and when Alec Martinez deposited a pair of free throws Sandburg was within 47-44 of the Thunderbirds.
Thornwood was still clinging to a scant three-point edge later on in the fourth period when Chelby Frazier landed a trio of critical blows in the final minute. His steal and two free throws extended the T’birds’ margin to five, then he registered a block to further frustrate the Eagles, who missed two short shots in the waning moments.
When Rashaad Alexander sank another pair of charity tosses, Thornwood had applied the finishing touches to a 60-53 victory that propelled it into Friday’s regional final. Sandburg ended its 2013-14 campaign at 10-18.
“It was a microcosm of our season,” Allen said of the loss. “I don’t think the record is a reflection on how we played against a very good schedule.
“Give my kids credit - they really battled. They hung in there and we had a chance - actually two - near the end. We were just a play or two away [from overtaking the T’birds].
“It was a tough loss and disappointing, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or heart that we came up short.”
The huge rally against Thornwood became necessary after the Eagles fell behind 33-19 at halftime. Four 3-pointers spurred the T’birds’ 17-6 second-quarter scoring advantage, which was highlighted by a 14-2 run.
“We were just missing some shots - pretty good shots, [like] a couple layups and a couple jumpers in the lane,” Allen said in explanation of his club’s dry spell. “Thornwood is very talented - I don’t think they’ve lost since Christmas - and we were kind of back on our heels a little bit.”
Although he didn’t specifically cite it as a reason for the struggles, Allen acknowledged that Monday’s contest had exacted a toll on his guys.
“Coming back the next day, we tried to get them rested after that pace, but there wasn’t much time [to do so],” Allen said.
When the T’birds’ lead grew to 44-23 during the third stanza, Sandburg’s postseason hopes looked to be fading fast. However, Allen reminded his players they “had been in that situation before against some good teams” and encouraged them to try to shave the deficit down to six by the fourth period.
The Eagles didn’t quite reach that goal, but Kogionis’ second 3-ball of the third frame got them within 46-38 at the next break. Kogionis had eight points on the night to rank third behind Cahue (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Eric Straka (11 points, four assists) on Sandburg’s scoring charts.
The Eagles’ biggest problem, though, was an ongoing bout of inaccuracy - a team that connected 50 percent of the time inside two-point territory and on 37 percent of its beyond-the-arc attempts for the year was limited to success rates of 45 and 13 percent, respectively, on this occasion. The cold shooting undermined an otherwise error-free display, as Sandburg was guilty of a season-low eight turnovers.
Eight 3s in the opening stanza got the Cards off to a hot start on Monday, but even when the Eagles were staring at a 33-20 deficit, Allen told his players not to panic.
“We said, ‘A 10- or 15-point lead or deficit in this game is irrelevant - just keep plugging away,’” he said. “We started in a zone because we knew we’d be running the whole game, but we changed up a little bit defensively. We switched to a man and that kind of slowed them down.”
A total of three 3-pointers from the Kogionis-Martinez duo fueled a momentum-shifting run that brought Sandburg into a 38-all halftime tie. Eisenhower was ahead by one at the third-quarter break, but its fourth-period drought enabled the Eagles to surge in front to stay.
The Cardinals snared 23 offensive rebounds, but the impact of that board work was lessened by forgettable 21-of-79 shooting. Eisenhower made good on only 14 of its 47 3-point tries, and it was outscored by a sizable 15-point margin at the free-throw line.
Four players reached double figures for Sandburg, a quartet led by Cahue’s 25-point, 16-rebound effort. Straka (18 points, five assists), Martinez (14 points, five assists) and Kogionis (14 points) offered able support in back of Cahue.
Straka was also praised by Allen for his defense against the Cards’ Vinny Curta, whose dad, Mike, coaches Eisenhower. The younger Curta finished with just 13 points.
Sandburg 15 23 17 22 - 77
Eisenhower 24 14 18 8 - 64
Sandburg Scoring: Cahue 25, Straka 18, Kogionis 14, Martinez 14, T. Demogerontas 6. Rebounds: Cahue 16, T. Demogerontas 8. Assists: Martinez 5, Straka 5.
Sandburg 13 6 19 15 - 53
Thornwood 16 17 13 14 - 60
Sandburg Scoring: Cahue 18, Straka 11, Kogionis 8, T. Demogerontas 6, Martinez 6, Ruzevich 4. Rebounds: Cahue 11. Assists: Martinez 4, Straka 4.