Ferocious defense keys Sandburg’s upset of Stagg

Sandburg's Barlow Alleruzzo (13) dribbles around the three point line looking to make a pass as the Eagles play Stagg, February 2, 2017 Allen Cunningham / for Chicago Sun-Times

Sandburg beating rival Stagg 40-36 isn’t a monumentally shocking result. The Eagles gave Stagg a a good challenge earlier in the season, losing in overtime.

But the way it happened on Thursday in Palos Hills was special. Sandburg was without its best player and the team played an absolutely dismal first half. Somehow the Eagles rose from the dead and grabbed a big win with nothing but defense and determination.

Sandburg junior Jake Pygon leads the team in points, assists and steals. He’s out with a knee injury. The Eagles managed just one bucket in the final 11 minutes of the first half and trailed 22-10 at the break.

Then everything changed, in the gym and on the court. The Eagles’ student section arrived (it appears most of them thought it was a 6:30 or 7 p.m. start time) and the team finally hit a three-pointer after going 0-for-11 in the first half.

Shortly after the three there was a minor flareup on the court. The Eagles were defending Stagg’s John Contant, one of the area’s best scorers, with a box-and-one defense. They were hard-nosed and physical and the Chargers took some exception to it. That led to a technical foul called on Stagg junior John Mahoney.

Sandburg ripped off a 13-0 run after the technical foul to lead 30-26 after three quarters.

“That was a big play for us, a big momentum changer,” Sandburg’s Edmond Mila said.

Mila led the Eagles (13-9, 2-4 Southwest Suburban Blue) with 13 points and four rebounds. The senior plays in the post despite being just 6-3.

“That is all I’ve ever played,” Mila said. “I just know the footwork. I like guarding big guys, I like playing as a big man. I just got a couple good seals on them that led to easy layups.”

Sandburg was in control until Mahoney drained a three-pointer with 18 seconds to play. That pulled the Chargers within 37-36.

On the next possession Sandburg junior Jack McNulty was fouled, setting up the most pressure-packed situation he’s ever faced. He was on the line with a chance to seal the win with 17 seconds left.

“I was nervous, I had bricked two free throws earlier in the game,” McNulty said. “I’m a mediocre free-throw shooter, I think I’m like 50 percent. I knew I wanted to shut those fans up”

“I saw his knees shaking,” said Mila.

McNulty made both free throws. Conant had a chance to tie the game but missed a corner three-pointer with five second to play.

“I give the guys credit, they worked their butts off on [Contant],” Sandburg coach Todd Allen said. “In the first game he hurt us, he made some big shots. We didn’t want to let him hurt us again.”

Contant finished with eight points and six rebounds. Mahoney led Stagg (15-7, 3-3) with 10.

Allen saw some positive signs from his team in the first half, he may have been the only one in the gym that did.

“Offensively we were getting good looks,” Allen said. “I told them at halftime, keep doing what we are doing and some of those shots will go in. But obviously the key was defensively.”

Mila hinted that Allen’s halftime talk may have been more colorful.

“I can’t get specific,” Mila joked. “He told us to fight for the name across our chest. We executed, we hit shots and we played great defense.”

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