By Jon DePaolis
Timely baskets and key offensive rebounds were the difference as Thornwood took down Richards last week in a Class 4A Stagg Regional semifinal.
Leading the way for the Thunderbirds was sophomore Donald Coats, who scored 21 points — 14 in the second half — and grabbed seven rebounds. Thunderbirds senior big man Jeremiah Tarver also came up huge for his team, just missing a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Tarver said the team has worked all season on crashing the glass.
“Our bigs really stepped up tonight — me, Donald Coats, Marcus Dorsey — especially Donald,” Tarver said.
The game was tight early, with four lead changes in the first quarter. But the momentum shifted in the final moments of the opening period.
With 11 seconds left, Thornwood senior guard Zachary Carr (19 points) broke a 15-15 tie with a bucket in the paint to give his team the lead. Then, with 0.4 seconds left on the clock, Carr drained a 3-pointer to extend it to 20-15.
The Thunderbirds wouldn’t relinquish the lead the rest of the way.
Carr scored 12 points in the first quarter, setting up his teammates with open looks the rest of the night.
“He was attacking the bucket,” Thornwood coach Paul Slavich said. “He’s done that all season. He was attacking the basket, and if you give him some space, he’s going to knock down a shot. If he attacks, and guys are pulling up to take a charge, he’s going to pull up on a little mid-range [shot].
“Zach’s our go-to guy when we need a basket, and other guys feed off him. When [teams] try to stop him, he drops it off to Jeremiah (Tarver), he hits Sean Burress and finds Donald Coats. They all feed off of him.”
Thornwood’s biggest lead of the night came in the third, when Tarver knocked down a free throw to give his team a 10-point lead at 46-36 with 3:51 left in the quarter. But Richards fought back on a 9-3 run, including two baskets by senior forward Trevon Jones. But despite the run, Thornwood ended the half up 54-49.
“You would kind of always look up at the scoreboard, and you’d think you were making a run all of a sudden, but you were still down,” Richards coach Chris Passafiume said.
“It was just one of those things where it was tough mentally to see that. But our guys had no quit in them, and we were right there.”
Passafiume said his squad exerted a lot of energy trying to mount a comeback.
“Chasing late is always tough and difficult,” he said. “We tried to give them as much as we could. We have guys that didn’t hit shots that they normally hit [tonight]. We just needed some guys to have average nights, not even excellent nights. We had some guys pick up the slack, but we just kind of came up a little bit short.”
About midway through the fourth quarter, Thornwood increased its lead to nine points after a 6-0 run. But with 3:52 left, Jones, who scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds, stole the ball in the Bulldogs’ defensive zone and drove downcourt for a contested basket in the paint. Then, Marquel Porter (11 points) knocked down back-to-back baskets to make it 60-57 Thornwood with 2:01 remaining.
It was as close as the Bulldogs would get the rest of the way, as both Tarver and Carr knocked down free throws to bump the lead back to 64-57 with 1:09 left.
“It’s kind of a testament to this group,” Passafiume said. “There’s not a lot of quit in this group. We have guys that play extremely hard and wear their emotions on their sleeve. They give everything and do everything we ask of them.”
In the final 30 seconds or so, Jones hit two baskets to keep Richards close — but Coats iced the game for Thornwood by putting away 3-of-4 free throws.
“Those are big-time free throws,” Slavich said. “We practice those. We run the guys, and then we put them on the line and say, ‘Hey, regional championship, we win or lose [on those shots].’
“The guys stepped up big time. We hit enough to get by, and it’s about survival in the playoffs.”
It was the end of the road for Richards (18-8). The Bulldogs will graduate five seniors, including Jones and Porter, but will potentially bring back eight underclassmen from this year’s roster.