Slow start costs Benet in sectional loss to Bolingbrook

Bolingbrook’s D.J. Strong has been in an unusual spot for a senior guard this season, ceding the spotlight to a freshman.

Fellow guard Davion Thompson is arguably the top freshman in the state. He’s the headliner among three underclassmen that now start at Bolingbrook.

Strong, to his coach, is the one that holds it all together.

“He is the glue for our team,” Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost said. “He hits shots, he makes free throws, he does whatever we need. He is our leader, first team all-conference for a reason.”

The court Tuesday at East Aurora was loaded with young talent, from Thompson to Benet sophomore Gabriel Sularski to Bolingbrook junior forward JT Pettigrew. Strong, though, showed the value of tough senior guards this time of year.

He scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half to help spring Bolingbrook to a 15-point halftime lead. The top-seeded Raiders led from the first minute on in beating fourth-seeded Benet 67-59 in a Class 4A East Aurora sectional semifinal.

Thompson scored 16 points, Pettigrew had 15 points and six rebounds and another senior guard, K.J. Cathey, had 10 points for Bolingbrook (27-4), which plays the Downers Grove North-Waubonsie Valley winner in Friday’s sectional final. Sularski scored 25 points and Patrick Walsh had 11 for Benet (27-7).

Strong hit the first of three Bolingbrook 3-pointers in the game’s first three minutes during an 11-2 start, and hit a 3-pointer to end the half and put the Raiders ahead 33-18. In between, he showed other elements of his offensive game, finishing through contact for a three-point play to push the lead to double figures.

“I’ll do anything for this team,” Strong said. “As a senior guard I have to make sure the young ones stay consistent. When you’re younger that’s harder to do. I’m just playing my role, doing what I need to do for my team.”

Even if that means holding back. In the fourth quarter, with Bolingbrook nursing a 10-point lead, Strong caught the ball wide open in the corner. As his coach yelled “out,” Strong judiciously passed up an open look.

“Normally I would want him to shoot,” Brost said. “It wasn’t the situation.”

Strong had three steals and shot 4-for-7, contributions that did not go unnoticed by Benet coach Gene Heidkamp.

“Strong had a huge game today, he hurt us,” Heidkamp said. “We know about Thompson and Pettigrew, but Strong really hurt us. He played like a senior tonight. He was a huge X-factor, made some big shots.”

While all five Bolingbrook starters scored in the first quarter, Benet struggled to get into any flow against a Raiders’ defense determined to shut off any interior scoring.

Benet shot just 4-for-23 in the first half while trailing 33-18, 2-for-15 from beyond the 3-point line. Bolingbrook led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter before a late Benet comeback. Until Walsh’s late flurry of three 3-pointers, Sularski was the only Benet player with any consistency offensively.

“We shot so poorly and I’ll credit their defense for that,” Heidkamp said. “They’re athletic, they play hard and we just didn’t make shots. Their defense was really good and we didn’t shoot well. That combination put us in a whole.”

Benet does have tremendous size in spots on its roster, but it never translated to success at the rim against a more physical Bolingbrook team.

On one possession in the third quarter, 6-foot-8 Benet junior Daniel Pauliukonis appeared to have a breakaway dunk until Pettigrew came flying in for a blocked shot.

“We talked about the last two days that we didn’t want to give up anything around the rim because of all their slips and flares and all they do, and Gene does such a great job,” Brost said. “I was paralyzed this morning watching tape of how we would guard that. To our guys’ credit we did a great job of guarding that.”

Bolingbrook, blending its youth with experienced guards like Strong and Cathey, seems to be peaking at the right time. The Raiders have lost just once since the second week of January, and came back to avenge that loss to Homewood-Flossmoor.

“We know who we are now. I think early on I was probably one of the issues holding us back,” Brost said. “All credit goes to our guys. I think we’re a little more in tune for what needs to happen, especially against good teams. We just try to get a little bit better each day.”

Bolingbrook's Davion Thompson (3) goes to the basket between Benet defenders Gabe Sularski (25) and Jayden Wright during a Class 4A East Aurora Sectional semifinal game on Feb. 27, 2024 at East Aurora High School in Aurora.
Benet's Daniel Pauliukonis (24) passes over Bolingbrook's DJ Strong during a Class 4A East Aurora Sectional semifinal game on Feb. 27, 2024 at East Aurora High School in Aurora.
Benet's Blake Fagbemi and Bolingbrook's DJ Strong collide during a Class 4A East Aurora Sectional semifinal game on Feb. 27, 2024 at East Aurora High School in Aurora.
Benet's Gabe Sularski (25) shoots over Bolingbrook's Davion Thompson and Kevin Cathey (4) during a Class 4A East Aurora Sectional semifinal game on Feb. 27, 2024 at East Aurora High School in Aurora.
Benet's Jayden Wright reacts after retrieving the ball on an over and back situation during a Class 4A East Aurora Sectional semifinal game against Bolingbrook on Feb. 27, 2024 at East Aurora High School in Aurora.
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