Back-to-back state titles for Morgan Park
By Pat Disabato email@example.com March 22, 2014 9:00PM
Morgan Park repeated as state champions after beating Lincoln, 59-49 at the Peoria Civic Center's Carver Arena, in Peoria, Ill., Saturday, March 22, 2014. Morgan Park won the game, 59-49. | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 24, 2014 10:14AM
PEORIA — Trailing by 13 points to Lincoln late in the third quarter, Morgan Park’s bid for a second consecutive Class 3A state championship was in serious jeopardy Saturday.
Someone, however, forgot to inform the Mustangs.
From that point, Morgan Park outscored the Railsplitters 26-2, turning a double-digit deficit into a 52-41 lead with 1:51 to go in the fourth quarter.
Lincoln never recovered, and Morgan Park registered a 59-49 win to repeat as 3A state champions.
“It’s a great feeling,” Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin said. “My team came through.”
That it did. There were a few keys to the stunning turnaround by the Mustangs (24-6).
One being Irvin’s decision to turn up the defensive pressure on a hot-shooting Lincoln squad. Lincoln was just 2-for-12 from the three-point stripe after a 7-of-14 effort in the first half.
“I wanted to put more pressure on them early, but I was afraid,” Irvin said. “They (Lincoln) shoot the ball so well. But I just decided to go with my gut.”
The other key was inserting seldom-used senior Dellan Whatley at the end of the third quarter. Whatley recorded consecutive steals and layups that cut the Mustangs’ deficit to 39-35 after three quarters.
More important, Whatley’s performance provided major momentum entering the fourth quarter.
“That was big-time,” Irvin said of Whatley’s contributions. “He told me he was ready and he made two huge plays.”
The Mustangs received contributions from many players during the decisive 26-2 spurt. Sophomore guards Jarrin Randall and Charlie Moore (12 points) knocked down consecutive three-pointers. Senior Josh Cunningham’s free throws with 6:35 remaining in the fourth gave Morgan Park its first lead — 43-41 — since the first quarter.
It was at that point Morgan Park decided to give Lincoln (34-3), which relies on a ball-control offense, a taste of its own medicine. The Mustangs played keep-away for more than a minute before Lamont Walker (12 points, 6 rebounds) lobbed an alley-oop to Cunningham (13 points, 9 rebounds) for a dunk and 45-41 lead.
“They turned up the pressure and we allowed them to score a few baskets at the end of the third quarter and it gave them momentum,” Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said. “We got into a comfort zone for three-and-a-half quarters. Then they started pressuring us and we didn’t adjust.”
Lincoln made it look easy during those first three-plus quarters, leading 19-10 after eight minutes, 30-21 at the half and 39-26 late in the third.
The Railsplitters’ ball control offense and 1-2-2 ball-press zone defense was causing fits for Morgan Park.
“We never felt like we were in trouble,” Moore said. “We were confident that we were going to win.”
Morgan Park started strong. Moore knocked down a pair of three-pointers and Cunningham sank a put-back to give the Mustangs a 10-5 lead.
That advantage was short-lived.
The Railsplitters ended the first quarter on a 14-0 run, hitting the Mustangs with a barrage of threes and layups off back-door cuts.
When Tyler Horchem somehow worked his way inside to grab a rebound and hit the putback just before the halftime buzzer, Lincoln led 30-21 at intermission.
“Coach told us to follow his lead,” Cunningham said. “We started pressuring the ball more. We started to get more confident and we made a run.”