The Christian Liberty Academy boys basketball team played in the IHSA tournament for the first time this week and learned the not-so-subtle difference between regular-season games and do-or-die state tournament contests: noise.
Coach Ken Kramer said No. 3 Christian Liberty played in front of more fans than ever before in Wednesday's semifinal of the Class 1A Westminster Christian regional. He also conceded the noise and pressurized atmosphere of a playoff game unnerved his team, particularly in the second half of a 52-49 loss to Chicagoland Jewish High School.
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"I've got a lot of young guys, and it's a composure thing with all the noise," said Kramer, who tried to quiet his school's fervent cheering section during one timeout. "It was great to have more fans supporting us, but I think the noise got to us a little bit."
No. 2 Chicagoland Jewish (12-8) advances to face No. 1 Westminster Christian for the regional title today at 7:30 p.m.
Christian Liberty (14-10) took a 16-11 lead after a quarter and led 29-24 at halftime, thanks to senior Aaron Johnson. He scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half.
The Chargers opened their biggest lead of the game at 33-24, when sophomore Luke Comerouski sank 2 free throws with 6:52 left in the third quarter. However, the Tigers kept coming.
Chicagoland Jewish chipped away at the deficit behind junior guard Aaron Cohn (game-high 21 points) and 6-foot-4 sophomore Samuel Botbol, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. Botbol scored twice in a row in the lane to pull the Tigers within 47-46, and Zachary Spellman's transition layup with 2:48 to play gave his team the lead for good.
A basket by senior Daniel Eisenberg on an inbounds play and a free throw from Cohn capped a 9-0 run that put Chicagoland Jewish ahead 51-47 with 40 seconds left.
The Chargers pulled within a basket on a drive by Michael Hennek (team-high 17 points). But after Cohn split 2 free throws, Hennek's 3-pointer with 14 seconds left fell short.
Consider it a postseason lesson learned for the Chargers, who started three sophomores.
"I think the anxiety got to us," Johnson said. "We were so anxious to play, so anxious to play that we didn't run our offense for the better part of the second half. We thought we could just run around in circles and do what we wanted, but it turned out we couldn't."
Added Kramer: "It was great competition for them and it gives them something to look forward to. It lets them see what level they need to play at."