Larkin tops Dundee-Crown for regional title

Playing on its homecourt for one final time, Larkin's seniors were not going to be denied Friday night.

Led by senior guard Damari Wheeler-Thomas' game-high 26 points, the top-seeded Royals (29-3) jumped out to a fast start and pulled away in the fourth quarter on their way to a 58-42 Class 4A regional championship victory over 4th-seeded Dundee-Crown (20-10) in Elgin.

With the game tied at 4-4, Wheeler-Thomas ignited a 9-0 run with a 3-pointer from the corner on his way to an 11-point opening quarter, as the Royals grabbed a 16-10 lead.

"It was very important for us to start off strong and keep the pace going the whole game," said Wheeler-Thomas, who added 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals as the Royals captured their first regional title since 2018.

Wheeler-Thomas canned his second 3-pointer of the game and hit a jumper at the elbow before senior Fernando Perez (10 points, 4 rebounds) added a basket to extend the Royals' lead to 25-12 midway through the second quarter.

Larkin led 28-19 at the half.

Dundee-Crown, fueled by senior guard Jason Huber's 7-point third quarter, stayed within striking distance, trailing 44-33 entering the final 8 minutes.

However, the Royals put the game away with a 10-0 surge in the first 3 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter - a run that featured a 3-pointer from sophomore Jakob "Cheese" Blakley (12 points, 4 rebounds) and back-to-back steals and layups from North Dakota State-bound Wheeler-Thomas.

"Defense - that's a priority for us," said Wheeler-Thomas. "Everybody sees the points that we score and think it's our offense but it's not really that. We pride ourselves on defense."

Larkin was forced to alter its defensive strategy early in the game, according to Royals coach Deryn Carter.

"We had two defensive plans," said Carter, who guided Larkin to its fifth regional crown since taking over as head coach in 2010-2011.

"They started big, which kind of adjusted what we were going to do. We put Damari on 23 (Kennon Cook) and J-Mo (Jamarion Stubbs) on 10 (Huber). Holy cow was J-Mo special on the defensive end. That kid (Huber) is a good player and J-Mo just gave him fits."

"I just tried to make it hard for him (Huber) all the way around," said Stubbs, who added 6 points and 3 assists.

Larkin led by as many as 22 points at 58-36 before Carter took out Wheeler-Thomas and Perez to a thunderous ovation with 2:19 remaining.

"Four-year guys on the varsity (team) are rare," said Carter. "To have two guys on varsity for four years - you just to come to know those guys. They come to know you maybe more than they want. You share in their elation because of how they work."

Huber paced the Chargers with 12 points, while Cook finished with 2 points and 7 rebounds before fouling out late.

"Whenever they needed a basket, he was there," Chargers coach Lance Huber said of Wheeler-Thomas. "He was the best player on the floor - I don't think there's any question about that."

The win was special for Larkin's seniors.

"We've been talking about this since eighth grade," said Stubbs.

"It means a lot because last time we were in the playoffs was sophomore year against Cary-Grove and we got knocked out in the first game," added Wheeler-Thomas.

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