Crystal Lake South escapes Prairie Ridge in overtime

Crystal Lake South’s fans held their breath as Prairie Ridge sophomore Eli Loeding pump-faked, then let go with a 3-pointer from the top of the key.

The top-seeded Gators, who had dominated so many opponents all season, were in jeopardy of seeing their season prematurely ended by a team they beat twice by a combined 84 points.

Loeding’s shot veered a little right and bounced off the rim, finally allowing Crystal Lake South to exhale with a 59-57 overtime victory in the Class 3A Cary-Grove regional semifinal at Elroy Fitzgerald Gymnasium on Wednesday night.

Crystal Lake South (28-3) survived and will meet No. 4 Wheaton Academy (18-11) in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. championship. The Warriors beat No. 5 Cary-Grove 58-41 in the second semifinal, ending the Trojans’ season at 15-17.

The Gators, who finished their Fox Valley Conference season 18-0 and set school record for victories Friday, got more than they wanted from Prairie Ridge (6-24). The Wolves barely got past Crystal Lake Central 60-59 in Monday’s play-in game.

“Welcome to the tournament,” South coach Matt LePage said. “They make a couple and they start believing, you have to have toughness to win. In the tournament, you see teams get confident.

“We were tight in the first half, we missed layups, throwing the ball away. The biggest thing we said is, ‘We won. We’re advancing to Friday, and that’s all that matters.’ "

Crystal Lake South had beaten the Wolves 76-22 and 70-40 in their two FVC games, but No. 8 Prairie Ridge was a different team Wednesday.

“We played our best basketball tonight,” Wolves coach Ryan Smith said. “We played a style of basketball tonight that allowed us to stay in the game. We controlled the tempo, we turned it over at times, but that’s going to happen against a long and athletic South team.

“Compared to the last couple times we played these guys, and they ran away with it, we really competed. The guys really responded tonight. South went on runs, and we responded right back. We came up with some big stops and they battled.

“What more can you ask for than trying to beat the best team in the area in a regional semifinal? It was fun.”

Crystal Lake South even switched from its customary 1-3-1 zone to man-to-man for a good portion of the second half to better deal with John Fuery (20 points) and Loeding (17), who hit five 3s each.

Fuery’s 3 with 1:10 to go in regulation gave Prairie Ridge a 50-46 lead. The Gators needed two free throws each from AJ Demirov and Colton Hess in the final 39 seconds to tie and force overtime.

“I was thinking all the times I’ve been to the gym. I go with my dad and can’t leave until I hit 20 or 30 straight (free throws),” Demirov said of the crucial shots. “After regulation there was a big smile on my face. We can get this now. We got this.”

It still was not easy though.

Luke Muse hit a pair of free throws with 29 seconds to go in overtime for a 57-56 lead, but Demirov scored on a driving layup and converted a three-point play with 21 seconds left.

Prairie Ridge called timeout with seven seconds to go and set up its last play. Loeding faked and got Demirov in the air to get a look at the last shot.

“No one else was shooting, we were running out of time. I was able to get a crossover and shoot it,” Loeding said. “I thought it was going, and I saw it going right.

“We just grinded and got after it. We knew how big of a game it was, our season on the line, and they were the 1 seed, we were nothing. That gave us an edge.”

LePage had nothing but respect for what Prairie Ridge did.

“Prairie Ridge played a fantastic game,” he said. “I credit out guys for staying in the moment, staying tough and composed down the stretch. Overtime hits, and I thought it was a free life. We had a free life. We took the lead, and here comes P.R.

“We won the game, that’s all that really matters.”

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