Lake Zurich halts CL South’s winning streak at 10

Crystal Lake South point guard AJ Demirov has no issues with giving the ball up to teammates, he just usually prefers it to be on his terms, like in transition or driving to the basket and dishing for an assist.

Lake Zurich had other ideas Wednesday in their Jacobs Hinkle Holiday Classic semifinal against the Gators. The Bears wanted the ball out of Demirov’s hands as soon as possible, so they sent guard Nick Popovic after Demirov all night, with a steady double-team of help.

Lake Zurich worked that man-to-man plan to perfection as it limited Demirov’s damage on its way to a 67-52 victory, which sends the Bears to Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. championship game against unbeaten Waubonsie Valley.

The Bears (12-3) pounded the ball inside to 6-foot-8 junior Anton Strelnikov, who finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds. They also hit eight 3-pointers, led by Kain Kretschmar, who had three and scored 19 points.

Demirov, who had 33 against Barrington Tuesday, scored 12 to tie teammate James Carlson for Gators’ leading scorer.

“I’ve never seen a full-court double like that,” Demirov said. “That was a good method to stop us, I think. I had to get rid of it as soon as I touched it.”

The loss ended a 10-game winning streak for the Gators (13-2).

“It was a good effort by them,” South coach Matt LePage said. “They ran a double on AJ the whole game, for 32 minutes. We’ve seen that for 6-, 10-, 12-minute stretches and we make them get out of it because we play well and it kind of spiraled. It got in our head. I thought it affected our defensive energy.”

Bears coach Terry Coughlin knew his team had to do something different to defend Demirov.

“We were trying to get the ball out of his hands as much as we could,” Coughlin said. “The more we watched him the last couple days, not only was he averaging 20-some points, but he really is the engine that makes them go. He gets everybody else shots and makes everybody else better.

“They have good players all around the floor. Our goal was to make those other guys who aren’t used to being in playmaking roles be playmakers. They’re not as comfortable in a playmaking situation and make AJ work as much as possible. We did a pretty good job limiting him.”

On the other end, Strelnikov was unstoppable, even with South’s 1-3-1 zone and four starters of 6-5 or taller. Strelnikov his 10-of-13 field goals and was 7 of 9 at the free-throw line.

“We play an in-and-out game and for me to get shots, we get it inside and it opens up things for the 3,” Kretschmar said. “We let him go to work and no one can really guard him.”

The Bears never trailed in the game, although South stayed close through three quarters. The Gators were down 44-38 to start the fourth, but Connor Strauss opened the quarter with a 3 that started a 9-1 Lake Zurich run.

Coughlin lauded the work of point guard Nick Popovic, both for his defense on Demirov and for handing out nine assists.

The Bears also pounded the glass to a 41-17 advantage, which Coughlin felt helped offset their 18 turnovers.

“They turn you over, they’re physical and athletic and long,” Coughlin said. “We talked about not having live-ball turnovers. Where we really did a good job was limiting them to one-and-done. We controlled the defensive glass and that helped minimize the turnovers because we’re not allowing extra possessions on the defensive glass.”

Kretschmar felt the Bears had the proper defensive mindset.

“Our defensive intensity was really high,” he said. “We doubled No. 4 (Demirov) and made him give up the ball to other players and that really helped. We had that plan going in. Nick chased him, faceguarded him and had the double coming.”

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