Chalk one up for experience.
If the Bartlett Hawks looked like they'd been there before when they rallied from a 10-point, third-quarter deficit to beat Jefferson 58-54 in a Class 4A Boylan semifinal in Rockford Wednesday night, it's because three of their key players indeed have.
Seniors Mike Banks, Luke Labedzki and Frankie Cleope were each members of the 2007-08 Bartlett team that also advanced to a Class 4A sectional title game and each came up big against the J-Hawks.
As sophomores, Cleope and Labedzki started against Glenbard West in the Class 4A East Aurora semifinals and against Neuqua Valley in the title game. Banks only saw a few minutes a game back then, but he said the experience of playing in such a tense environment as an underclassman gave him the confidence to almost single-handedly carry the Hawks to victory in front of a vocal crowd at Boylan.
Banks scored 10 of his game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter.
"I think it does help a lot, actually," he said. "Because we've been in that atmosphere before we're capable of being more comfortable in it now. The ones that have been there - me, Luke, Frankie - we try to stay positive and keep our composure for everyone else on our team. It worked tonight."
Cleope came of the bench against Jefferson as coach Jim Wolfsmith went with the bigger lineup he has used since the start of the playoffs, which includes 6-foot-6 junior forward Femi Oyewole and 6-2 freshman Lance Whitaker. But Cleope, a 5-10 guard, made a big impact when he was on the floor in the fourth quarter.
He drained a 3-pointer from the corner with 3:49 to play to stake the Hawks to their biggest lead of the quarter, hitting nothing but net. He finished the game with 9 points.
"When Frankie took that three from the corner I'm sure people were wondering 'What the heck is he doing.?' Wolfsmith said. "Big shot. Buried it. Four-point lead."
After the J-Hawks took a 1-point lead on sophomore Latterion Davis' 3-pointer with 1:28 left, Banks drove to the hoop, drew the foul and split a pair of free throws to tie it. His relentless drives to the bucket, mostly left-handed, proved to be the difference in the game. Though he drove and missed a shot with 40 seconds left, senior teammate Larry Whitaker gathered the rebound and finished to give Bartlett a 55-54 lead with 36 seconds to play.
Protecting that narrow lead on defense, Cleope and Labedzki (10 points) teamed up to hassle Jefferson point guard Jemarkus Lovett on his drive down the left edge of the lane just enough to force a traveling call with 8 seconds remaining. Cleope swiped at the ball and Labedzki stood firm with arms straight up, a human roadblock between Lovett and the hoop.
The two teamed up for an even bigger play to seal the victory. The ball was inbounded to Labedzki, who looked as though he would hold the ball and get fouled. But he suddenly spotted Cleope all alone at midcourt, rifled an overhead pass and watched as his friend since their Eastview Middle School basketball days cruised in for a layup and a foul with 2 seconds left.
"It's instinct," Labedzki said of the pass to Cleope. "I've been playing with him since seventh grade. I know he's going to be there. I could have just let them foul me, but he made a big layup, got the and-one and I got the assist. That's a team, and that's just as good as free throws."
The way his experienced seniors played in the sectional semifinal didn't come as a shock to Wolfsmith.
"The three guys who rose to the top and have risen to the top in big games for us are guys who have played in this sectional world before," Wolfsmith said. "The fact that they've done this for three - and in Luke's case, four years - and they've played at the sectional level makes a big difference. There's no question"
The only question left is whether this group's experience will translate to a feat never before accomplished by the Bartlett boys basketball program - a sectional title. The Hawks have reached sectional championship games twice before and lost both times.
Perhaps experience will make the difference the third time around when Bartlett (16-11) faces Boylan (25-4) for the title on the Titans' home court on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"We want to be the best team in Bartlett history," Cleope said. "We've been getting stuck here (in sectional finals). We want to get past this game. I just want to end my last year on a good note, and all my teammates want to end it on a good note too."