A.J. Casey's tip-in at buzzer lifts Wolverines to 18th straight regional crown
By Jason Maholy
If it had been a supersectional or played at the state finals, last week’s regional championship game between Brother Rice and Simeon might be ranked in the upper tier of greatest boys high school basketball games in Illinois history.
Twenty-three 3-pointers. Thirteen lead changes. An inspired comeback in the closing minutes of regulation, punctuated by a game-tying trey to send the game to overtime.
And a tip-in at the buzzer to win it in the extra session.
Those were just some of the more outstanding aspects and moments of the Wolverines’ heart-stopping 75-73 victory over the Crusaders in the Class 4A Brother Rice Regional on March 1.
The two teams slugged it out for 36 minutes, never separated by more than eight points, and looked like they were going to play for another 240 seconds when Simeon senior Jeremiah Stamp’s second free-throw attempt caromed off the rim and the clock ticked toward zeros. Stamp, needing to sink just one of two to all but seal the deal, had already missed his first attempt.
But Simeon freshman A.J. Casey somehow got free and used every bit of his lanky, 6-foot-9 frame to tip the ball up and in as time expired. The Crusaders and their fans stood stunned and silent as they watched the Wolverines celebrate on their home floor.
Rice played about as well as they could have in attempting to put an end to Simeon’s streak of 17 consecutive regional titles. Fueled by one of the greatest games of Marquise Kennedy’s stellar career, the Crusaders went toe-to-toe with the Wolverines and scored 13 points in the final 2:46 to send the game to overtime.
Kennedy was responsible for 10 of those points, none bigger or more crowd-crazing than those that came via a 27-footer to tie the game at 69 with 15 seconds left in regulation.
Down three with less than 30 seconds to go, Kennedy leaped high to steal a pass bound for the paint, then assertively dribbled the ball just beyond half court before pulling up from well beyond NBA long-range and coolly draining his fourth triple of the night. The bucket sent the Crusader Crazies into delirium, and with momentum on its side it appeared Rice was destined to pull this one out.
It just wasn’t to be. Rarely can a team play as well as the Crusaders did and not win.
Credit Simeon, which hit big shot after big shot and had an answer for every crucial play Rice made.
Crusaders coach Bobby Frasor – a Rice alum who played in an all-time classic sectional final against a Derrick Rose-led Simeon squad in 2005 – praised his team’s performance.
“They were awesome,” Frasor said. “Down five in the fourth, they made big shots and big plays. It was a fun, fun ride and I just told them how proud I was of them.
“It’s been an awesome year, and a fun year coaching these guys. Sports is so much fun, but it sucks at the same time. They put so much time and energy into it, from conditioning to preseason practices to film to everything they do. And then for it to be over – it’s an emotional time in [the locker room].”
Kennedy, the Loyola-bound Crusaders guard, finished with a game-high 27 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks. But he was crushed by what he perceived to be his failure to prevent Casey’s game-winning put-back, according to Frasor.
“That’s not the case at all,” Frasor said. “He made huge plays and hit huge threes for us, a huge block at the end of regulation to send it to overtime. We wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for him. He made so many big plays for us to keep us in this game.”
Rice’s supporting cast made big plays as well. Junior Deandre Hagan scored 18 points, 16 of them in the second half. Senior Jimmy Gavin had the hot hand in the first half, during which he hit four 3-pointers for all 12 of his points.
“We knew we were going to get open looks, and Jimmy’s a shooter,” Frasor said. “There was stretch in the third where we got winded and missed some shots. But that’s what we do, we take threes. We got open looks and we made some, and I just wish we made one more at some point.”
Brother Rice hit 15 triples, nine of them in the first half to help them to a 36-30 lead at the break.
Simeon responded with a 14-5 run to open the second half, and had its largest lead of six points with less than three minutes to go when Kennedy took over.
“Marquise is an exceptional, exceptional talent,” Frasor said. “He just had the best individual season in Brother Rice history, without a doubt, and so we went as he goes.”
Kennedy’s skills opened up opportunities for his teammates, and when they established themselves as threats, reciprocated for their star player. That was one of the keys to the Crusaders success as they surged in the second half of the season and finished 22-9 – and just short of a regional title.
“’Quise is so good, but teams can’t just key on him because Jimmy showed he can shoot, ‘Dre showed he can shoot, and those guys really stepped up and made teams respect them,” Frasor said. “And that opened things up more for ’Quise.”