With all due respect to Aurora Christian junior Johnathan Harrell’s past game-winning shots, they can’t touch the one he pulled off Friday.
Harrell’s off-balance, fadeaway 3 from the left corner as the clock wound down to 0:00 Friday gave the Eagles a 54-53 win over visiting St. Francis, knocking the Spartans out of first place in the Suburban Christian Conference Blue Division.
“I’ve hit game-winning layups in like sixth grade,” Harrell said shortly after being mobbed not only by his teammates but a swarm of Aurora Christian students charging the court.
“Great feeling. We were going for 3. He (coach Pat McNamara) told me you are going to get the game-winner. If you don’t shoot you are going to drive and kick to Cory (Windle).”
The first conference win for Aurora Christian (11-9, 1-6) could not have come in more dramatic fashion. Trailing 52-48 with 20 seconds remaining, Windle swished a baseline 3 to bring the Eagles within 52-51.
After Jason Pisarski split free throws for St. Francis (14-3, 6-2) with 12.8 seconds left to make it a 2-point lead, the Eagles went for the win. The Spartans denied Harrell the ball after he came off a double screen, but sophomore Zach Singer eventually was able to find Harrell for the buzzer-beater.
“Harrell hit an unbelievable shot,” McNamara said of his third-year varsity player who was coming off a season-high 28 points Tuesday. “He looked very confident out there. That’s who we wanted to get the ball to. He’s a clutch player.”
The Spartans fell a game behind Wheaton Academy in the SCC Blue, a team they had just defeated last Friday.
“A kid hits a fall-away 3 with a guy in hs face, that’s basketball,” Spartans coach Bob Ward said. “It’s not life and death. But it’s much more fun when you are the one who puts the ball in the basket.”
St. Francis trailed most of the first half, trimming the Eagles’ biggest lead at 30-20 down to 32-29 at halftime despite the Eagles making 6 of 8 shots from the field in the first quarter and 6 of 9 in the second. Eight-of-9 free throw shooting by the Spartans kept them close.
Windle’s steal and layup late in the third quarter sent the Eagles to the fourth up 39-37 before Andrew Kimball caught fire to single-handedly put the Spartans in control.
Kimball’s three straight 3-pointers for a 9-0 run turned a 41-37 deficit into a 46-41 lead with four minutes remaining. All of his game-high 15 points came on 3s.
“He’s a great shooter,” Harrell said. “I think he missed one shot the whole game? Pretty ridiculous.”
Zach Singer made two key plays to keep the Eagles alive, first sinking a 3-point basket and then a drive with 36.1 seconds left to trim the Spartans’ lead to 51-48 and set up the final two 3s from Windle and Harrell.
St. Francis, which had made 12 of 16 free throws up to that point, also didn’t help itself going 3 for 6 from the line in the final 44 seconds.
McNamara credited his team’s improved defense for the win, quite the reversal from a 73-49 loss to St. Francis in the first meeting. Six-8 senior Paxton Singer made his second start of the season and in addition to two early baskets provided some muscle inside.
“We’ve been getting sliced up defensively,” McNamara said. “We’ve been trying to pressure teams all year. Assistant coach Dan Beebe said let’s get in the gaps a little bit. That really helped us, took away the drive a little, and Paxton kind of clogged the lane.”
Harrell and Ryan Suttle scored 14 points for the Eagles while Windle added 12 points and a game-high 9 rebounds.
The Eagles got some good news this week when senior Ryan McQuade’s knee was diagnosed as twisted and not a torn ACL. McQuade missed Friday’s win and won’t play Tuesday when the Eagles welcome the state’s No. 3 ranked Class 2A team Winnebago (19-0) but should be back in two weeks.
“We’re happy to ge the first one (SCC win), hate to get skunked,” McNamara said. “We have some guys who are used to winning in other sports. I think we needed a game like this.”
The Spartans will try to rebound Saturday at Rock Island Alleman.
“I give our kids credit,” Ward said. “They showed a lot of character tonight. Things weren’t going real easy for them. They came back and took control late. At the end talent sometimes comes to the floor and that was a great night for that kid.”
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