As a senior Josh McAuley rose to the challenge.
Specifically, entering Wednesday's Class 4A Bolingbrook sectional semifinal game, the 6-foot-7 West Aurora center rose to block 94 shots and alter countless others.
He answered the task of providing a secondary scorer for the Blackhawks, complementing guard Jontrel Walker with an improved midrange and outside game to go with post play. McAuley proved a worthy high-post distributor to the Blackhawks' twin wide-bodied senior forwards, Chandler and Spencer Thomas, and whomever else cut to the basket.
McAuley's achievements on both ends of the floor shined most brightly in a First-Team All-Tournament performance at the renowned Pontiac Holiday Tournament and as recently as last Friday's regional final victory over Geneva.
As one DuPage Valley Conference coach said: "I know Walker was an emphasis on every scouting report, but when McAuley played well, they took off."
Rising to the challenge of impacting defensively and expanding his game offensively, McAuley was the difference maker for the best team in Kane County all season. Josh McAuley is the honorary captain of the Daily Herald 2012-13 TriCities All-Area Boys Basketball Team.
"I challenged him one time, like, 'You should get a double-double,' and he went out and got a double-double," said West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman. "I told him again the other night (against Geneva). He didn't have quite a double-double, he had 18 (points) and 8 (rebounds)."
He's right, that's no double-double. Instead McAuley guarded one of the best players around, fellow All-Area recipient Nate Navigato, and held him to 5 points, 11 under his average. He also enjoyed solid games against big men Sean O'Mara of Benet, Nick Czarnowski of Naperville Central and 6-11 Andrew Zelis of Wheaton North.
"His defense at times has really been awesome," Kerkman said. "Offensively I know he's doing more things. Like in practice today he pulled down a rebound and looked for an outlet man and the outlet man was not there, and he just took the ball downcourt. He looked like a point guard. He's probably our best passer and he's a good shooter."
Entering Wednesday McAuley was averaging 13.1 points a game on 56 percent shooting. He's shooting 67.6 percent from the foul line, and though he's only taken 18 3-pointers McAuley's made 8 of them, a 44-percent clip. He's grabbed 80 offensive rebounds and averages 7.6 boards overall. His 50 assists rank fourth on the club behind Jayquan Lee, Walker and Spencer Thomas.
All of those numbers are dramatic improvements over McAuley's junior season when five other Blackhawks, led by 2012 All-Area captain Juwan Starks, took more shots than he did.
"He is kind of the classic definition of a 'late-blooming' big man," said West Aurora assistant coach Paul Kieffer. "He has made continual improvement since his freshman year. His work in the weight room has definitely made him stronger and more agile. He has good shooting touch which means that he can play both inside and outside. This has made our offense more versatile this year.
"His shot blocking ability has helped our defense by allowing our guards to play more pressure and funnel penetration into him in the middle."
About those blocks. West Aurora School District 129 Board President Neal Ormond, Class of '58, the "Voice of the Blackhawks" on WBIG AM-1580 and the school's resident sports historian, doesn't recall any West Aurora player accumulating more than McAuley's 94 rejections this season. He had 59 as a junior.
St. Charles North coach Tom Poulin witnessed McAuley in action at Pontiac. McAuley scored 15 points with 7 blocks and 2 steals in a 69-22 win over Lockport. He scored 12 with 11 rebounds, 5 blocks against St. Charles North and added 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocks in a win over Warren. Against Simeon in the finals McAuley led the Blackhawks with 12 points plus 5 rebounds in a 60-47 loss.
"I thought McAuley was a game-changer, and when I saw him compete against the big men of Simeon I think the only thing that stopped him was the foul trouble. He was as good as anyone on the floor that night," said Poulin, who called McAuley the best big man he'd faced all season.
"I thought he was effective offensively within the system, he got all over the offensive boards, and then on the defensive end he takes you out of whatever you want to do. If he doesn't block a shot, he makes you adjust it."
Kerkman said he's had several heart-to-heart chats with McAuley. McAuley said he was offered to play on varsity as a sophomore, but after speaking with his parents, Eric and Angie Meaderdes, they decided he'd benefit by more minutes at the sophomore level.
"(Kerkman) said if I put my offensive and defensive skills on display every game we'll be a tough team to beat," McAuley said.
If there have been knocks on McAuley, it's that going for blocks can land him in foul trouble. And when the ball's not bouncing his way, Kerkman says McAuley can "get a little moody."
"I've always been like that, ever since I was little," said McAuley, whose mother went to East Aurora, his grandfather to West. "Even if I have a good game I always feel I could have done better. It's just the pressure I put on myself."
He'll freely address his improvement and abilities, his pros and cons, and admits he enjoyed the attention received at Pontiac. Eventually, though, the conversation centers on team, teammates and shared experiences like last year's supersectional game.
McAuley riffed on physical reserve Matt Williams' defensive ability and the lift sophomore guard Matt Dunn brings off the bench; how guard Lee delivers every practice, the way All-Area guard Walker can score "anytime he feels." He called Spencer and Chandler Thomas "the workers on the team."
"I feel on our team we don't truly have a true superstar like some high school teams do, so we have to rely on each other sometimes to work as a team," he said.
Perhaps the occasional loss of composure that strikes the otherwise positive McAuley comes because he feels he's letting them down.
According to Ormond's broadcast partner, former Glenbard North coach Bob Miller, that's not the case.
"He made people better," Miller said.
Kerkman noted McAuley has matured since last season. Hand in hand with that maturity has been confidence. As a boy, starting in YMCA ball at age 4 McAuley played guard. That lasted throughout his middle school years, his days with the Aurora All-Stars AAU team -- whose coach, Keith Jones, called McAuley a "three-point specialist." Upon blossoming into a 6-foot-3 sophomore, he went into the paint.
This past summer, playing with the Illinois Attack, McAuley was again able to work on his outside shooting game. It paid off.
"No way would I have predicted Josh would make this jump," said Mike Mullins, who coaches the Illinois Wolves AAU team and developed two sons, out of Downers Grove South, into college players.
Jump he did.
"This year I knew I was a scorer, and I knew with Juwan leaving I had to step up into more of a leadership role, put more of my stuff together, offense and defense," McAuley said.
It all came together at Pontiac.
"Some people, they just looked at me, 'He's a decent player, not much of a threat on the offensive end.' After the Pontiac Tournament people looked at me in a different way. They realized I could score the ball, too. Another thing people actually realized from the Pontiac Tournament, too, that for my height I'm a pretty good passer."
He said his shot blocking ability -- the secret is timing -- also opened up people's eyes. Players' too.
"They realized that when they got to the paint it wouldn't be just an easy layup, they'd actually have to work for it."
Back in the day, McAuley's dad told him: "If my offense isn't going in a game, you'll always have your defense."
This season, Josh McAuley had both.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.