High-octane offense is the calling card for Mundelein boys basketball.
But the Mustangs’ grit and determination on defense led to an historic moment for their program in Friday night’s Class 4A regional championship game at Lake Zurich.
Shutting out fourth-seed and North Suburban Lake rival Lake Forest in the final 2:22 gave No. 5 Mundelein the opportunity to come back and claim a third straight regional title for the first time with a 59-56 victory.
“The way we played defense against Lake Zurich carried over to this game,” Mundelein 6-foot-2 senior Cliff Dunigan said after scoring 11 points and battling 6-9 Yale-bound Sam Downey and 6-7 sophomore Evan Boudreaux inside.
“We know we can score, but defense is always our weak point,” said Mundelein senior Sean O’Brien, whose team beat Lake Zurich 66-46 in the regional semifinal. “That’s what we’ve been focusing on and the last two games we’ve probably played our best defensive games all year.”
The 6-7 O’Brien had a double-double by halftime to help Mundelein (18-13) overcome an 11-point deficit and beat Lake Forest (20-8) for the second time in three tries. O’Brien finished with game-highs of 22 points and 15 rebounds and had 3 assists.
Quinn Pokora went 4-for-6 on 3-pointers and scored 14 points, Chino Ebube overcame first-half foul trouble to bolster the second-half defense and Robert Knar continued to make the most of his limited minutes in his return from a torn ACL with some crucial plays down the stretch. That set up the Mustangs with a chance to avenge a pair of regular-season losses in Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. Waukegan sectional semifinal against top-seeded Stevenson (25-4), which won its 15th straight game 76-49 over Waukegan in the Prospect regional final.
“I told the guys you can never give up and you have to keep believing,” Mundelein coach Dick Knar said of a game that mirrored its season.
“I think we’ve overcome a lot of adversity,” said Robert Knar, who had just 6 points on 1-for-6 shooting but now gets another chance to get at least the 4 points he needs for 2,000 in his career. “We showed the work ethic we’ve had at the end.”
Especially when Lake Forest bolted to a 24-13 lead 5:55 before halftime with a 10-point run. Ben Simpson (13 points, 5 rebounds) and George Quall hit 3s and Downey (10 points, 9 rebounds) and Boudreaux (17 points, 7 rebounds) scored inside.
But O’Brien had 13 points and 11 rebounds to help Mundelein get within 31-26 at halftime.
“We knew if we could keep ourselves in the game we’d have a fresh Chino in the second half,” O’Brien said. “That helped a lot. He rebounded like an animal in the second half.”
Ebube had 4 of his 5 rebounds after the break and his offensive rebound and feed to Pokora for a 3 gave Mundelein its first lead at 44-41. Pokora’s inbound to a wide-open Diamond Hood for a layup made it 55-52 with 3:53 left.
“We had a couple of breakdowns that they took advantage of and that’s what good teams do,” said Lake Forest coach Phil LaScala.
The Scouts answered with a Boudreaux layup and 17-footer by Carter Bass (13 points) to lead 56-55 at 2:22. Then Mundelein buckled down defensively as Ebube blocked a Simpson drive and Knar broke out with the loose ball and fed O’Brien for a go-ahead layup at 1:01.
“Our coach tells us our offense will come,” Dunigan said. “We have guys who can definitely score but we knew as long as we played defense, other teams wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Dick Knar put O’Brien on Boudreaux and O’Brien’s deflection of an entry pass led to Ebube’s steal. Pokora missed a 1-and-1 with 29.5 seconds left, but Bass’ pressured 15-footer was short and led to Robert Knar’s 2 free throws with 11 seconds left. Lake Forest had a last chance with a sideline inbound out of a timeout with 6.4 seconds left but Boudreaux’s 3 rattled in and out and Knar took off with the rebound as the buzzer sounded.
“When I saw them line up at the top of the key I knew it would be a triple screen (for Boudreaux),” Dunigan said. “I went out and made it hard for him.”
And postgame pictures with the regional plaque and nets were a gratifying reward for a season that hasn’t been easy for the Mustangs.
“It’s been one heck of a season ... but I think it’s made us stronger,” Dunigan said.
“It’s awesome and we knew at the end we could erase a lot of bad memories by going far in the playoffs,” Robert Knar said after sharing a big postgame hug with his dad. “Today sums up everything. We knew we had it in us.”