Simeon withstands Marist's bid for epic upset

  • Written by Jason Maholy


By Tim Cronin


Marist did everything against Simeon but beat the Wolverines.

The RedHawks' performance in the Class 4A Thornton Sectional title game featured the vexing, tenacious defense they employed all season, only cranked up a notch. It featured an offense that, even as various Wolverines hung on East Suburban Catholic Player of the Year Morgan Taylor like a cape, got the job done so well that Marist held a 10-point lead aftera David Daniels' jam with 9:27 remaining in the game.

How, then, did Simeon rally to score a 53-48 victory for a berth in the super-sectional title contest against defending champion Whitney Young, in a rematch of last year's Class 4A championship game? By never getting ruffled by Marist's passionate play. By playing with the quiet assurance and belief that their own brilliance would, at some point, make the difference.

Pressing to force turnovers, the Wolverines (29-3) rallied to beat the RedHawks by outscoring Marist 26-11 in those last nine-and-a-half minutes. Simeon didn't commit a turnover during that decisive stretch. However resolute Marist had been, Simeon matched their effort – then raised it – proving themselves the top-ranked team in Illinois for at least one more night.

"They applied more pressure, and of course we're used to that pressure," said Jack Ellison, whose 14-point, nine-rebound performance led the RedHawks. "We talked about, 'When we get the lead, don't be surprised. Keep playing.' But turnovers happened, and that played a role in their coming back."

Thus ended a rollicking two-week run through the playoffs for the RedHawks (27-5), and the end as a squad for a team that bonded in every cliched Hollywood cliche, only in reality.

"It's going to be real hard," said Taylor, held to nine points in his final highs school game. "The practices were fun times. Last year, we had all experienced players. This year, all the players were inexperienced, but the guys stepped in and played their role well. I appreciate these last two years a lot. We tried to set the foundation for the team coming in."

"I loved playing with those guys and I'm going to miss it every single day in practice," agreed fellow senior Ellison. "We played as hard as we'd ever played before. I think that's all that mattered. The chemistry, the love we have, it's not like any other team. It's just not."

"I loved playing with this team," added Daniels, who finished with 12 points and seven boards in his last game as a RedHawk. "It was pretty much from the start. Some of us didn't know each other, but first practice and right after, we were clicking."

That trio of Taylor, Ellison and Daniels, Marist coach Gene Nolan will really miss. The group's chemistry, and the foundation of a help-out defense that leaned on a 3-2 zone that Simeon took the better part of three quarters to solve, will also be missed.

"We believed going in," Nolan said. "When you're doing it, there's an added belief. I think our kids developed that. We were good defensively, rebounded really well. We were efficient offensively."

In the end, Simeon was Simeon, and ended Marist's dream.

"I could not be any more proud of our kids," Nolan said. "Those are the 15 greatest kids a coach could ever coach."

For more than one brief shining moment, the game was Camelot for Marist's vocal fans in the gallery of about 1,500. Perhaps recalling last spring's sectional semifinal at Thornwood, when Simeon beat Marist by 20, they could revel in the RedHawks racing to an 8-0 lead when the Wolverines missed their first nine shots; then, in how Marist punched back after the Wolverines, paced by Iowa State-bound Talen Horton-Tucker's 17 points, took brief leads of one and then two points in the first half.

The game was tied at 23 at the intermission and Marist, on baskets by Taylor, Dorion Pendleton (nine points) and Ellison in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the third quarter, again ran out to a lead. The advantage reached 37-27 on the aforementioned Daniels dunk, for which the Marist faithful in Thornton's iconic gym went crazy.

"It was a great feeling hearing that," Daniels said.

Then Simeon coach Robert Smith turned the vise and ordered a press. Between that, a trio of 3-pointers by Kejuan Clements (12 points) and a pair of timely baskets by Messiah Jones helped the Wolverines overcome the deficit and escape.

"We knew what we could do," Daniels said. "We started to come back, but we needed more."

Marist is in good company. Most every foe Simeon has faced this season has left the gym saying the same thing.

Marist 61, Homewood-Flossmoor 47
The RedHawks earned their date with Simeon by running over a very good Homewood-Flossmoor team in the sectional semifinals on Wednesday, March 7. Marist's 3-2 zone stymied the Vikings, who turned out to be the scheme's final victim of the 2017-18 season.

A 3-2 zone, three guys in front, two in back, is in everyone's playbook. Why, then, did teams this season have so much trouble solving Marist's, which contributed to H-F's 24 turnovers.

"It's not really like a normal 3-2," said Jack Ellison, one of the main cogs. "We move guys around, keep flying them around. That's what the coaches emphasize the most. That's what confuses teams a lot. It's just a different look."

Ellison scored 23 points and Morgan Taylor had 20, and H-F had no answer for the one-two punch. The Vikings (21-7) had Issac Stanback, who scored 23 points, but no one else hit double figures.

Marist played its most aggressive defense beginning when it was 16-all midway through the second quarter. A 9-0 run opened the game up, and while H-F pulled to four points once, the RedHawks led 41-32 after three quarters.

"We looked for teammates and made the right choices," Taylor said. "Our defense is fairly unique."

"Defensively, our kids did a great job," Nolan said. "They're a difficult cover because they can really drive it. We were really active defensively."