Written by Phil Arvia
Photo by Jeff Vorva
Marist's Maurice Commander (right) and Simeon's Evan Gilyard collide Tuesday night.
With 39.6 seconds left in what would be a 56-36 loss to Simeon in the Class 4A Thornwood Sectional semifinals Tuesday night, Marist seniors Justin Brown and Bobby Hawkinson were pulled from a game for the last time by coach Gene Nolan.
Each made their way toward the end of the bench, shaking hands and issuing hugs along the way, until finally embracing each other before sitting.
“I was thinking just how grateful I was for the season,” Hawkinson said.
“It was hard, obviously,” Brown added. “Our high school careers are over with.
“But I have so much love for these guys. I feel like we were definitely the best team that ever came through (Marist). … I’m going to miss it.”
The RedHawks finished with a school-record 27 wins against four losses. They won their first outright East Suburban Catholic title ever, their first Centralia tournament since 1991 and a regional crown for first time since 2012.
“When you see kids crying, it means they really won because they know they can’t come back tomorrow and be with each other,” Nolan said. “I’m really lucky to have been their coach.”
The RedHawks showed their resilience against Simeon (27-3), the state’s top-ranked team. Trailing 30-9 halfway through the second quarter, Marist got within 11 twice in the third.
“When we got it to 11, everyone was like, ‘We can do this,’” Maurice Commander said. “But they matched our runs. Give them credit.”
Commander and sophomore Chase Robinson shared team-high scoring honors for Marist with nine points each. Brown, who now moves on to analyzing college offers from Chicago State, Lindenwood, Northern Michigan, Quincy and Lewis was held to four points and six boards.
Simeon, attempting to emerge from the sectional for the third straight season and seventh in the last eight, was led by Evan Gilyard’s 13 points. The Wolverines, winners of six state titles since 2006 and third-place finishers last year, will meet the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Brother Rice (25-5) and Thornton (22-5) on Friday, with the winner advancing to the March 14 Illinois State Supersectional.
For Marist, it’s wait ’till next year — which looks promising, given they’ll return Commander, the East Suburban Catholic Player of the Year, along with second-leading scorer Morgan Taylor. Also back will be David Daniels, at 6-4, will be the tallest returning starter, and Robinson, who got quality minutes all year and stepped into the starting lineup when Taylor missed four weeks with a broken wrist.
“We lose two big pieces of our team,” Commander said. “But we’ll still have tough guards with me, Morgan and Chase. I feel good about next year.”
Or at least he will, once the sting of this one subsides.
MARIST WINS REGIONAL
At times, Marist’s dissection of T.F. North’s full-court defensive pressure in an 89-66, T.F. South Regional championship win Friday looked easy.
It looked easy as Maurice Commander hit his first nine field goal attempts on the way to a game-high 32 points. It looked easy as Justin Brown made his last nine — nearly all of them dunks — on his way to 18. It looked really easy when the RedHawks were pushing the pace of play and slashing in for layups as their lead ballooned to 33 points in the late going.
“It wasn’t easy,” Commander said. “But it felt like it was.”
It felt like it because Marist’s starting five ran full-court scrimmages in practice last week against a team of eight reserves.
“When we came out five-on-five, it was like second nature,” Commander said.
Marist coach Gene Nolan has used the tactic before in his 17 seasons at the helm, but not this year.
“We had to do it,” he said. “There’s no way we can simulate what T.F. North does five-on-five. Five-on-eight was the closest we could come.”
The results were Marist's first regional title since 2012 and a balanced effort, despite Commander’s gaudy numbers. His career high came on just 16 field goal attempts — he made 12 — while the RedHawks shot 60 percent (33-of-55) as a team. Brown’s 18 came on 9-of-12 shooting, and he added eight rebounds.
“It’s that extra pass thing,” Brown said. “One of our core values is unselfishness. Maurice is a pass-first point guard — this was his first 30.
“I’m not shocked by it. I know he’s capable of scoring like that. Together, I feel like we can play with anybody in the state.”
The fifth-seeded RedHawks (27-3) advanced to Tuesday’s Thornwood Sectional opposite No. 1 Simeon (26-3), a 56-43 winner over Marian Catholic in the Eisenhower Regional title game. The fourth-seeded Meteors, led by Terrell Porter’s 15 points, finished 23-4.
North last led at 16-15 with just under a minute to play in the first quarter. Marist was up 19-16 at the end of the period on a pair of Chase Robinson free throws and a Commander put-back.
Commander had 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting in the first half as the RedHawks got out to a 40-29 lead.
“He’s had a lot of great games for us,” Nolan said of the East Suburban Catholic Player of the Year, “but this was the best game of his career.
“The pace of the game offensively was the way it was because of him. He was everything we needed him to be tonight.”
Commander added Marist’s first bucket of the third quarter and stole the ensuing inbounds pass for another quick deuce before finally, at the 6:27 mark of the period, missing a field goal attempt. Incredibly, the junior point guard fired up an airball on a deep 3-point attempt.
“Just a heat check,” Commander said. “I felt pretty good taking it, but I was probably a little far out.”
Commander’s teammates required no such “heat check.” They came out fired up.
“Everyone was together from jump,” Commander said. “That’s what I’m proud of.”
Morgan Taylor (14 points), David Daniels (13) and, off the bench, Robinson (10) also reached double figures for Marist.
“We always make the extra pass,” Daniels said. “The sky’s the limit when we play together.”
The idea was to play fast — on offense.
“When we could run, we wanted to do that,” Nolan said. “More importantly, we were able to create patience defensively.
“Getting them to have long possessions, that was the key to the game for us.”