Despite facing the back-to-back Class 3A state champs Friday at the state tournament, there was no fear in the game —or the eyes — of the Althoff Crusaders.
Taking play right to the Chicago Morgan Park Mustangs from the opening tip, Althoff built a 16-point lead in the first half only to watch it dwindle to one early in the final quarter under the heat of a record-setting 45-point performance by Morgan Park senior guard Marcus LoVett.
The Crusaders rediscovered their momentum in the fourth quarter and delivered an 82-74 victory that sent them into the 3A state title game for the first time in school history.
“I keep waiting to wake up and find out it’s Groundhog Day and we’re back on November 8th,” joked Althoff coach Greg Leib, whose 30-3 team faces Westchester St. Joseph (28-6) in the 3A title game at 2 p.m. Saturday. “It’s a lot of fun for the kids. I told them to enjoy it, don’t let this define you. Enjoy the moment and have fun with it.”
Leib’s team struggled at times in the second half, but came up big when it counted against an all-out offensive assault headed by LoVett.
“It’s tough,” Leib said. “We didn’t make some free throws like we should down the stretch but I’m definitely proud of these guys because they kept battling. The biggest key of it is we took care of the basketball. I saw their pressure and how they make teams look bad. These guys did a nice job of meeting the pass, taking care of the ball, finding the open guy and making plays out of that.”
Finding the open guy was huge.
The Crusaders’ share-the-wealth offensive plan generated 20 points from Brendon Gooch, 18 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists from Jordan Goodwin, 17 points from Tarkus Ferguson and 14 more from Marvin Bateman.
“Everybody just stepped up,” Ferguson said. “I talked to them before the game telling them we needed buckets out of everybody that gets in the game.”
LoVett hit 20-of-27 shots for the two-time defending state champs. One of his shots cut Althoff’s lead to 56-55 early in the fourth quarter. Althoff tried double-teams, a triangle-and-two and just about everything else in an effort to slow one of the state’s top players.
“We were over there rubbing two sticks together,” Leib joked.
Nothing really worked as LoVett broke the 3A state tourney scoring record. His quickness got him some open looks, but many of his shots came at full speed, sometimes while changing hands in midair or on power moves to the bucket that sent him flying into the press tables.
“I thought he’d get tired sooner or later from shooting all those layups,” Leib said. “But that didn’t work too well so we’ll have to try a different plan against somebody else.”
Facing an ultra-aggressive Morgan Park defense, Althoff hit 25-of-38 free throws while the Mustangs hit 5-of-8. Charlie Moore added 17 points for Morgan Park (22-7) and Jamal Burton had 10.
Althoff led 37-27 at halftime and pushed the lead to 13 early in the third quarter, but LoVett and Moore combined for 19 points in the third quarter to cut the deficit to six.
Moore scored seven straight points, then LoVett hit a shot that cut Althoff’s lead to 56-55. But just as quickly, the Crusaders regained composure and Goodwin bulled his way inside to score six straight points and give his team a lead it would never relinquish.
“I thought my guys came out a little slow and we picked it up as the game went on,” Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin said. “They do a good job of hitting the offensive glass and that’s been a problem with us all year, rebounding. We just picked the wrong time not to fight and get it.”
There were some anxious moment at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter with Althoff hitting 16-of-25 foul shots to keep the Mustangs in it, but eventually the Crusaders pulled away as their large fan section began celebrating.
“I looked at the clock when it was 56-50 and they had the ball and Marcus LoVett got an ‘and-one.’’’ Goodwin said. “I saw my teammates’ heads go down and I tried to pick them up. Tarkus had to pick me back up and then we started back playing.”
After falling behind quickly in the first quarter, Althoff reeled off a 13-2 run and took command. More momentum came on an alley-oop pass from Goodwin that Ferguson turned into a slam dunk. Three-pointers by sophomores C.J. Coldon and Bateman gave Althoff a 21-8 lead after the first quarter.
The Crusaders didn’t back down in the second quarter, continuing to push the tempo and take things at the Mustangs. Althoff’s lead reached 30-16 on a 3-pointer by Gooch and another 3 by Bateman pushed it to 35-19.
LoVett single-handedly kept his team in the game, scoring 14 of the Mustangs’ 19 points in the second quarter and 18 of their 27 at halftime.
Althoff outrebounded Morgan Park 26-13 in the first half, with 12 grabbed by Goodwin. Goodwin finished one assist shy of a triple-double.
The margin narrowed in the second half, but Althoff asserted itself underneath with aggressive rebounding.
“You’ve got the old-school technique where you stick your thumbs in your ears and you put your butt into them, but after that it comes down to who wants the basketball,” Leib said. “That’s basically what these guys did, they wanted the basketball. They put a body on (them), they went out and pursued and got after it.
“These guys have done that all year. Some of them I accuse of padding their stats and missing on purpose so they can bump up their rebounding totals.”