With marquee MSL West matchups between Barrington and Palatine, as well as Fremd and Conant, slated for Friday night, who knew that the most exciting and competitive game of the evening would come from the conference's two sub .500 teams?
If you've watched Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg play this year, it should come as little surprise, though, simply given the level of talent up and down both rosters.
Fending off a furious fourth-quarter rally in which the Saxons trailed by as many as 13, the Hawks (9-10) held on for dear life and ended a 3-game skid with a riveting 57-56 victory at home.
"Our biggest thing out there is energy, positive energy," said Hawks head coach Luke Yanule. "We have tight knit group of kids with great chemistry … we came out a little flat, but then we found our rhythm and late in the game, our ability to withstand their run was good. That being said, we have to go back to the drawing board and fix some things."
Schaumburg, which suffered a 53-40 home loss against the Hawks on December 15th, stormed out to an 8-0 lead midway through the first quarter that was capped off by a two-handed jam by junior standout Heze Trotter (18 points).
The Saxons shot 78% from the field in the first quarter (7-for-9) and 63% for the game (17-for-27) — a vast improvement from last Friday's road loss where they shot an icy 29% on the night.
But they had no answer for the sharpshooting of the Hawks from three-point range, who shot an impressive 9-for-20 (45%) from deep in the contest.
Trailing 15-6 in the first quarter, senior forward Marshall Davis got it going burying back-to-back triples to trim the Saxons lead to 15-12 with under a minute remaining in the stanza, igniting the home crowd as Hoffman trailed 17-12 after one. Davis had 13 first-half points, and 16 for the game before fouling out.
"Good for him," said Yanule. "Marshall has not played well the past few games and to come out tonight and shoot like that was nice to see … and his defense was pretty stellar too. He's such a phenomenal and widely respected kid, that was good to see tonight."
Hoffman continued to claw its way back early in the second quarter as Adrian Punzalan (10 points) canned a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 21-18. Moments later with the Hawks trailing 23-20, Sheldon Morales- Bennett triggered a 14-3 run to close out the half when he converted a bucket and was fouled in the act. The Hawks led 34-26 at intermission as free throw shooting continued to be an achilles heel for the Saxons.
Schaumburg shot just 7-for-16 from the line in the first half and 17-for-34 on the night.
"It always comes down to free throws, rebounds and turnovers," said Yanule. "And we've been on the other side of that ourselves this year … hit a game-winner, lose by a game-winner, hit key free throws, miss crucial free throws so we've been there."
After a Chris Hodges basket for the Saxons opened the third quarter on a positive note for the vistors, the Hawks went for the knockout punch with an 8-0 tear thanks in part from three-pointers by Punzalan and Rudra Patel (14 points) to bolster their advantage to 42-28 with 4:30 to go in the period. The team then traded buckets the remainder of the quarter and the Hawks had a healthy 46-35 lead going into the final frame.
Enter Michael Hodges.
With his team trailing 48-35 with 7:15 to play, the Saxons senior guard gave a herculean effort and brought his team back from the brink by scoring 17 of his game-high 25 points in the quarter — 11 of those coming with under two minutes to play.
The first of those 11 points came at the 1:45 mark when Hodges converted a basket off his own steal to get the Saxons within 4 at 51-47.
Trailing 54-50 with just 54 seconds to go, Hodges managed to get a hoop and the harm to cut it to 54-53 and after the Hawks hit 3-of-4 from the line to extend the lead to 57-53, Hodges buried a three-pointer with 5.9 seconds to go.
Hoffman was quickly fouled, but missed both free throw attempts giving the Saxons one last gasp with 4.3 seconds to go.
Trotter took the outlet pass off the missed free throw and raced the length of the court. With Punzalan matching him stride for stride, he managed to get to the right of the lane and put up a shot that bounced off the backboard and then off the front of the iron as time expired.
"I knew I couldn't foul because they were in the double-bonus," said a relieved Punzalan. "So I just tried to force him to take a shot from a bad angle, and luckily he missed."
"Man, I had fouled out by then, but I was on the bench with my fingers crossed and just praying it didn't go in," added Davis.