Fillip Bulatovic, Essam Hamwi powering Maine South’s surge at the perfect time

Maine South's Fillip Bulatovic (14) shoots over Crane's Jimarius Sneed (5) in their 60-40 win in Park Ridge, Saturday, February 9 2019. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times
Maine South's Fillip Bulatovic (14) shoots over Crane's Jimarius Sneed (5) in their 60-40 win in Park Ridge, Saturday, February 9 2019. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Fascinating storylines abound on a Maine South team rapidly surging towards contender status.

First-generation players from Serbia, Ukraine, Syria and Thailand all on the same roster. A star guard putting up massive numbers at center. Two wins in a week’s span against Red-West/North teams, in a winter noted for its exceptional Chicago Public League domination.

All told, Hawks coach Tony Lavorato has his team red-hot at the perfect time. On Saturday, they extended their winning streak to six straight with a pull-away 60-40 victory over Crane.

“We always say what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. In early January, I felt like we were on the verge of getting broken,” Lavorato said. “Now, we’ve settled in and we’ve got a nice rotation going and our guys are playing with a lot of confidence and our defense is clicking.”

Former guard Fillip Bulatovic, a 6-5 senior with Division II and III college offers, was shifted to center for the first time in his career in early January. Lavorato said he wanted to get Bulatovic more one-on-one matchups inside rather than double-teams on the perimeter.

That unorthodox switch has proven to be a brilliant idea. Bulatovic is averaging more than 22 points per game during the winning streak, scoring 20 in an upset of Notre Dame, erupting for 33 against Marshall and recovering from a slow first half to finish with 19 against Crane on Saturday.

“It’s been a crazy year — the past three years have been crazy,” Bulatovic said. “I really like where I’m at right now. I think we’re going to make a pretty solid run.”

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Bulatovic is complimented by point guard-slash-sharpshooter Essam Hamwi, who made five three-pointers Saturday en route to a game-high 23-point outing, and a strong supporting cast, including 6-3 forwards John Gardiner (14 points Saturday) and Dan Crane.

“Early in the beginning of the year, we were just trying to gel together and get our chemistry going, but now we’re moving the ball and playing more confident,” Hamwi said.

That depth helped the Hawks (19-9), fatigued after a narrow win at Glenbrook South last night, break open a third-quarter tie against Crane (8-13) with an onslaught of transition baskets, three-pointers and easy backdoor layups.

The hosts ultimately scored 28 of the game’s final 36 points.

“They’re really good in terms of playing on the block and establishing post position,” Cougars coach Alonzo Crowder said. “Early in the first half, we were playing behind them and they were making some plays. We started to get in the passing lanes a little bit, and we got a few steals. But those guys keep coming, they don’t stop, so they’re going to get their touches.”

Maine South has been all over Illinois this season, playing in tournaments and shootouts almost every weekend in addition to its difficult Central Suburban Conference schedule.

It has pulled off some upsets and come very close to several more: A two-point loss to New Trier, an overtime defeat against Evanston, a 3-point loss to Lincoln Park. A matchup against No. 10 Homewood-Flossmoor next weekend at DeKalb presents a final opportunity to nab a statement win before the playoffs.

And once the Hawks — unquestionably one of the hottest teams in the area right now — get there, even Lavorato isn’t quite sure what will happen.

“I’ve been saying all year, we could beat anyone in the state but we could lose to anyone in the state,” the coach said with a laugh. “Because we’re heavy on a couple of guys, if we’re not mentally there, anybody could beat us. But if we are mentally there, we could make a deep run.”

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