All the right moves: Demirov does it all in Crystal Lake South’s record-setting season

AJ Demirov learned something about Crystal Lake South’s basketball program this season.

“I didn’t know that many people followed Crystal Lake South basketball,” Demirov said after his team played before big crowds at the Kaneland Class 3A sectional championship in Maple Park and against eventual 3A state champion DePaul College Prep in the Hoffman Estates supersectional at NOW Arena earlier this month.

“It was an amazing feeling knowing so many people were behind us,” he said.

Demirov, the Gators’ 6-foot junior guard, had plenty to do with the large contingent of Crystal Lake South faithful standing behind their team during its record-breaking regular season and postseason journey.

Averaging 21.2 points and nearly 5 assists per game while helping lead the Gators to a school-record 31 wins (31-4) and their second sectional championship — first in 41 years, Demirov has been named Captain of the Daily Herald’s Fox All-Area Basketball Team for 2023-2024.

After the Gators graduated 4 senior starters, including leading scorer Cooper LePage, from last season’s team that captured the school’s first regional title in 24 years, Demirov was confident in the up-and-coming group.

“Some of the guys coming up either came off the bench or had watched our regional success last year,” said Demirov. “Thay practiced with us every day. I knew we had some size returning — and we’re all friends.”

Gators coach Matt LePage knew Demirov’s role would change a bit this season.

“We needed AJ to score while also getting his teammates involved more,” said LePage.

Demirov answered the call.

“AJ became a floor leader,” said the coach. “His assists more than doubled from last year — he finished with 159 for the season. It’s a very rare combination that he possesses. He can get other guys involved, and he can score from all over the court.

“He can grab a rebound, dribble downcourt and shoot — sometimes it’s the best look he’s going to get. He can distribute to those big guys in the post or lead the transition on the fastbreak. He has great court vision.”

As the season progressed, the Gators began seeing more gimmick defenses from opposing teams trying to get the ball out of Demirov’s hands.

“One of the first times it happened was when we faced Lake Zurich,” LePage said of his team’s 67-52 loss to the Bears in the semifinals of the Hinkle Holiday Classic last December. “They double- and even triple-teamed him.

“That was the beginning of like 12 to 14 straight games where we saw all sorts of different defenses geared toward stopping him.”

Most teams were unsuccessful in their attempts.

“After that Lake Zurich game, Coach LePage and I watched a lot of film, and we were always prepared,” said Demirov. “We won our next 12 games.”

In mid-December, Demirov scored a career-high 40 points with six 3-pointers during a 73-67 overtime victory over Cary-Grove.

“That probably was my most memorable game,” he said. “I think I had 9 points at halftime before scoring 30 in the second half and overtime. “I remember my teammates telling me to ‘keep shooting — we trust you.’”

In early January, Demirov scored the 1,000th point of his high school career during a road win at Hampshire.

The following night, he finished with 25 points and 7 steals during the Gators’ 64-38 victory over Jacobs.

Two weeks later, he had 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists in a 66-47 road win at McHenry. In early February, Demirov scored 14 points but took a back seat to teammates James Carlson, Christian Rohde, and Colton Hess as the Gators clinched the Fox Valley Conference title with a 60-51 win at Huntley.

In mid-February. Demirov tallied a game-high 18 points during the Gators’ 63-44 victory over Hampshire at The Swamp — a win that broke the single-season school record for victories while cementing an unblemished 18-0 conference mark.

“Any time you go unbeaten in conference, it’s a great achievement no matter what conference you’re in,” said LePage.

Demirov finished with 27 points and 7 assists in the Gators’ 73-52 regional title victory over Wheaton Academy, then added 25 points with 12 assists during the team’s 69-38 sectional championship win over host Kaneland.

While the Gators’ postseason came to an end in the supersectional against DePaul Prep, nobody could take away from Demirov’s overall enjoyment this past season.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “Every game was exciting, especially at the end of the season.”

Demirov, who is still undecided on his collegiate plans, will continue to improve his game this summer with his AAU team — Fundamental U — as he strives to play Division 1 college basketball in the fall of 2025.

“I’m going to work on becoming more athletic,” he said. “I want to get stronger and play a little more above the rim next season.”

LePage is happy to welcome Demirov back next fall.

“He gives us a chance to win most nights,” said the coach. “He’s a tough kid to guard. I’m glad he plays for us.”

Crystal Lake South's AJ Demirov shoots the ball over Freeport's Isaiah Baker during a IHSA Class 3A Kaneland Boys Basketball Sectional semifinal game on Feb. 27, 2024, at Kaneland High School in Maple Park. Gregory Shaver
Crystal Lake South's AJ Demirov steals the ball from Freeport's Carson Hartog during a IHSA Class 3A Kaneland Boys Basketball Sectional semifinal game on Feb. 27, 2024, at Kaneland High School in Maple Park. Gregory Shaver
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