Flanked by senior Jason Malonga to his right and seniors James Dockery and Danny Sobolewski to his left following Benet’s upset victory over Simeon, Jack Nolan was quick to the point.
“Overall, I love these teammates,” Nolan said on Friday after the Redwings’ one-point victory over the Wolverines sent them into Saturday’s Class 4A state title game opposite Curie. “All year, they’ve been unbelievable. They’re unbelievable players. I think a lot of them don’t get the credit they deserve a lot of times. These guys are amazing. I love them all. It’s great to be here with them.”
The Redwings knew many believed they weren’t supposed to beat the Wolverines, yet they did anyway behind getting 11 points each from Sobolewski, Nolan and Malonga.
A true team in every sense of the word, Benet put up its 16-game winning streak and program-best 31 victories against Curie with the same togetherness it had demonstrated 34 times before.
“We knew nobody gave us much of a chance,” Sobolewski said of beating Simeon late Friday. “They have nine Division I players. They’re No. 1 in the state for a reason. I mean, they’re a great, great team and the run they were on was pretty exceptional. But we had everybody believing and we knew we could play with anybody in the state.”
One night later against the Condors – the team many expected would provide Simeon’s opponent in the Class 4A final at Peoria’s Carver Arena – that belief was on full display for 22 minutes.
For 22 minutes, the Redwings controlled matters behind some timely perimeter shooting, thanks to collectively hitting six triples in the first half.
But Devin Gage and Curie controlled matters in the game’s last 10 minutes.
A 19-0 Condors’ run in the second half, spearheaded by Gage, allowed them to claim their first boys’ basketball state title courtesy of a 65-59 victory over Benet.
The DePaul-bound Gage scored a game-high 23 points, including nine in the third, in leading four Condors in double figures.
Curie (27-4) didn’t pick up its first lead of the game until a Gage triple with 1:23 left in the third.
After Gage hit his second of three triples in the third, the Condors would never trail again as three others – Elijah Joiner, Treavon Martin and Landers Nolley II – all scored 10 points apiece.
“They tried to speed us up, which is our game, and we fell for it and it hurt us bad,” Dockery said on Saturday.
Benet (31-4) was looking to become the fourth school – joining Teutopolis, Marshall and Whitney Young – to win both girls’ and boys’ basketball state titles in the same year.
Instead, it’ll have to settle for a program-record 31 victories and a second Class 4A runner-up finish in the last three years.
Three Redwings, Dockery (14) Sobolewski (12) and Nolan (11), scored in double figures as they had a 16-game winning streak snapped.
“These guys sitting around me and the guys out on the floor right now, there’s not a coach that can be any prouder of his team than I am,” an emotional Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said on Saturday. “It’s really been a privilege to coach these guys all year. We came up a little bit short today, but my feelings for them grew stronger as we went through it at the end.”
For the first half and much of the third, the Redwings had the game’s tempo right where they wanted it, even with Sobolewski picking up two early fouls.
Five different Redwings hit three-pointers in a first half that saw them lead by as many as 12 points – with Justin Enochs’ two leading the way.
But once Gage started rolling offensively and the Condors started pounding the ball inside behind Martin’s 14 rebounds, there wasn’t much they could do to stop the onslaught.
“Didn’t knock down shots,” Sobolewski said after his high school career ended with 78 victories and two Class 4A runner-up finishes. “Can’t make excuses. We had a great year. I wish we could have got a few more stops, made a few more shots and become the state champs. But you got to give it to Curie. They’re a great team.”
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