First-year Aurora Christian coach Steve Hanson expected some growing pains, but one area he never thought would be a problem bit the Eagles once again in their season finale Wednesday night.
Third-seed Aurora Christian built a 6-point halftime lead over No. 2 Westmont in the Class 2A Aurora Christian regional semifinals, then the Eagles' hopes for an upset ended when they stopped being able to hold onto the basketball.
After committing just 3 turnovers in the first half, Aurora Christian coughed it up seven times in the third quarter. Westmont capitalized, outscoring the Eagles 44-23 in the second half on its way to a 61-46 victory.
Westmont (19-10) will play top-seed Timothy Christian for the regional title Friday night while Aurora Christian's season ends at 9-17.
"We just couldn't handle their stretch zone," Hanson said. "They pressured the passes and we didn't do a very good job responding. We talked about ball-faking but we just turned it over way too much in the second half."
Sophomore CJ Schutt hit a pair of three 3-pointers in the first quarter and Josh Haugen added another helping the Eagles to a 14-8 lead after eight minutes.
Westmont senior guard Jacob Lechelt, who led all scorers with 23 points, connected on a 15-foot jumper for a 16-15 lead midway through the second quarter. Schutt's 3-pointer put the Eagles right back in front, and the Eagles extended their lead to 23-17 at halftime on Schutt's banked in 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
Senior Dean Griffing's putback basket to start the third quarter gave Aurora Christian its biggest lead at 25-17. The Eagles still led 30-23 on Salomon Kabongo-Kooper's three-point play, but shortly after the turnovers started piling up leading to Westmont's 17-4 run to end the third quarter.
"As games go on generally our defense gets a little better," Westmont coach Craig Etheridge said. "Our guys start jumping passing lanes better and we got them a little rattled."
Erik Andrews' 4-point play in the final seconds of the third quarter gave Westmont a 40-34 lead entering the fourth quarter. Hanson said it was the third time this year a 4-point play has hurt the Eagles late in a game.
Freshman Ryan Suttle's 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter brought the Eagles within 42-37, the closest they would come. After the three 3-pointers in the opening quarter, Aurora Christian made just 3 of 17 the rest of the game, a trend that hurt them in the second half of the season.
"We kind of lost our touch the last month," Hanson said. "I don't know if it's because we are young and tired or we're not as good as we thought we were. On the plus side we really battled every night and I think we got stronger as a unit and I think we have a bright future."
That bright future includes the freshman Suttle plus a host of sophomores like Schutt, Haugen and Nick Marema. Suttle led Aurora Christian with 12 points, Suttle scored 11 and Kabongo-Kooper had 10.
With so much youth and a new coach the Eagles wound up just about where Hanson thought they would be record-wise.
"To be perfectly honest I thought stepping into the season if we could get to 10 wins it would be a good year," Hanson said. "One more tonight would have made 10. I thought some things went better than I thought but I never anticipated ballhandling being as much of a problem as it was. It just really hindered us."
Hanson also thanked seniors like Griffing and Kabongo-Kooper who provided the muscle inside.
"I feel bad for the seniors and I felt bad all year (for them)," Hanson said. "I'm a new coach and I'm their fourth coach in four years. A lot of them didn't get a chance."
Westmont beat Timothy Christian 61-56 earlier this season in what Etheridge said was the best game they've played all year.