By Randy Whalen
Nick Harper likes to live in the moment.
The Stagg senior guard certainly had a moment on Senior Night during the Chargers regular season finale on Feb. 19.
Harper scored at the buzzer on a put-back from about 11 feet out to give Stagg an amazing 39-38 victory over Lockport – and a season sweep of the Porters – in a SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue Division matchup in Palos Hills.
Stagg kept the good times rolling into the postseason, as they topped rival Sandburg 50-39 on Monday, Feb. 25 in the first round of the Class 4A Stagg Regional.
The Chargers’ win over the Eagles was their sixth in nine games of a season that saw its share of challenges and disappointments. They started the season 4-0 before losing 12 of their next 15 games.
One of those three wins in that tough midseason stretch was a 42-41 over Lemont. Harper scored the winning basket at the buzzer in that game too.
"I don't like to talk about the past," Harper said of his previous game-winning shot. "I like to live in the moment."
Harper’s moment against the Porters save Stagg, which had squandered a 14-point lead they held with exactly five minutes to play in the game.
Lockport (14-12, 3-7) trailed 37-23 before rallying behind the play of senior guard Jake Karli and junior guard Tim DiCristofano, who scored seven and five points, respectively, during a 15-0 run. That was capped on a put-back by DiCristofano with seven seconds to play to give the Porters a 38-37 lead.
"I was just trying to be aggressive and I went up and got it," DiCristofano said of his go-ahead basket. "I was excited but I knew there was a little time left."
The Chargers called a time out with 6.3 seconds remaining, then inbounded the ball and got it to senior guard Roy Huddleston, who put up a 3-pointer from the left corner. The ball bounced high off the rim and right to Harper on the opposite side. With the clock expiring he played the ball like a setter in volleyball and fingertipped it up. It was certainly off his fingers in time, the buzzer went off and the ball swished through the net to give Stagg an unforgettable Senior Night win.
Harper finished with 6 points and 11 rebounds, his final board accounting for the 13th offensive rebound of the game for Stagg.
"I just saw the ball and knew I really didn't have time to grab it," Harper said. "So I just tipped it in. I wasn't really expecting it, it was an ‘in-the-moment’ thing.
“I didn't know if it went in – I fell down. Then I got tackled by everyone and it was great to experience, that love from my teammates."
The win capped an uneven regular season for the Chargers, who began their current five-of-eight winning push with a 53-32 victory Jan. 25 at Lockport. That win over the Porters gave Stagg some momentum heading into the homestretch.
"Nick is just an athlete and does a lot of things that you can't teach," Stagg coach Marty Strus said. "I'm glad we got a win on Senior Night. I feel like we're playing with more confidence and I'd like to think we're playing our best ball of the year now."
All six Chargers seniors scored in the game, and they combined for 36 of the team’s 39 points. Huddleston scored a team-high 12 points, Obadah Abu-Rezeq scored 5, Martin Macenis had 6 points, Ty Winkelmann chipped in with 5 and Jared Muhr had 2.
Porters senior guard Matt Hatzopoulos scored 10 points, and hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter to help Lockport to a 10-5 lead after one quarter. The lead grew to 12-5 in the opening seconds of the second quarter, but Stagg came back with a 10-2 run and took a 15-14 lead on a layup by Harper with 1:35 to play in the half.
Hatzopoulos answered with a layup to push the Porters ahead 16-15 at halftime.
There were five lead changes to open the third quarter. Ahead 24-23 with 2:45 left in the third quarter, the Chargers embarked on a 13-0 run to go ahead 37-23 on a layup by Winklemann with five minutes to play. But a slew of Stagg turnovers – they had eight in the fourth quarter after entering the final stanza with seven – and a pair of missed free throws helped aid the Porters’ comeback.
Strus made sure to say some good words to many of Lockport’s players after the game.
"Anyone who played this game has been on both sides of a game like this, and knows what it feels like to be on the other side," said Strus, who played his collegiate basketball at Lewis University in Romeoville, just across the Des Plaines River from Lockport. "I want to make sure to mention that [Lockport coach] Brett Hespell does an unbelievable job with that program. We at Stagg are looking toward them and to being a program like them.
"The character, the coaching, the love for the game they have, are the reasons they play the game the way they do, and that allowed them to come back on us."