There is a treasure this state gets to enjoy every March.
Yes, it’s been saturated and toyed with in ways that have certainly changed the aura and historical perspective, and it has clearly been negatively impacted in many ways, but this past Friday night was still the best representation of what high school basketball means in this state.
More importantly, for that one night –– I’m talking sectional championship night –– the majority of the criticisms are put on hold and high school basketball returns to its roots. Even the purists who have been disgusted by what’s occurred in high school basketball in this state in comparison to where it once was have very little to complain about during sectional week.
For myself and many other diehards, the Friday night sectional championship games are actually the climax as a high school basketball fan. It’s the gold standard of high school sports in general and, specifically, for high school basketball.
There are still great teams and matchups to be played in super-sectionals and in Peoria next weekend, but the distinct feel of a sectional championship game is different.
These are the games played in front of sold-out high school gyms, fans hanging over railings and goosebumps on your arms from deafening crowd noise. There is an energy and an emotion that is unique in comparison to any other time of the season. We enjoy the satisfaction of 2,500 to 3,500 fans cozied up in a high school gym before we disperse the top teams to college arenas that are never filled.
The geographical side of sectional basketball also brings out the best. For starters, there are still teams playing all across the state. Sectional basketball also often brings together familiar communities, rivals one last time and wide-ranging interest. By the time the State Finals roll around a week later a lot of the wide-spread fandom has been lost and so much attention turns to the NCAA Tournament.
And I say this steadfastly: the basketball played in the sectional championship games are generally the highest level played all season. Teams and players are competing in their comfort level and surroundings –– namely the high school gym –– and the competitive spirit and atmosphere surrounding it just all seems to fit beautifully.
All of these characteristics came together this past Friday night, which is assuredly the best night of high school sports on the calendar.
There is nothing more equally triumphant and devastating than a buzzer beater. The jubilation Fremd fans experienced Friday night –– and the exhilaration Kyle Sliwa must still feel today –– can only be equaled by the crushing low Conant’s players and fans feel after a stunning buzzer-beating sectional game.
There is nothing like sectional rematches, such as the aforementioned Conant-Fremd battle, the DuPage Valley Conference clash for Naperville North and Wheaton North and Bolingbrook-Joliet West: Part II. In each one the team that won all of the previous matchups went on to win the game with the most on the line. You know how big of a challenge that is to beat a good team twice or three times in the same season?
There is nothing like the nothing-to-lose attitude of the underdog hanging tough (St. Rita) in defeat or winning a sectional championship (St. Viator), while the state powerhouses we’ve grown accustomed to watching in March (Simeon, Young and Morgan Park) flex their muscles.
There is nothing like watching the very best players rise to the occasion with monumental performances to lift their teams to a sectional championship. And the stars came out Friday night. The big names flourished, from Edwardsville’s Mark Smith (45 points and 13 rebounds) to a near quadruple-double from Jacobs big man Cameron Krutwig (20 points, 23 rebounds, 11 blocks and 8 assists) to Evanston’s Nojel Eastern (29 points and 17 rebounds) to Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu (28 points and 14 rebounds).
There is nothing like watching big school basketball between two single high school communities like Evanston vs. Waukegan, Benton vs. Centralia and Danville vs. Edwardsville.
Whether you were in one of the great old venues at Waukegan or Ottawa or Proviso East or Hinsdale Central or a sold out gym at Lincoln-Way East or a standing-room-only crowd at Robert Morris University, you were able to share in the great sectional basketball experience.
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