While it was the best finish ever by a Belleville boys basketball team at the state tournament, Althoff’s second-place showing at the Class 3A finals left the Crusaders with nothing but disappointment.
Westchester St. Joseph won its second state title in 46 seasons under Hall of Fame coaching legend Gene Pingatore, holding on for a 67-63 victory over the Crusaders on Saturday at Carver Arena.
“Like the prophet Ricky Bobby said, if you ain’t first you’re last,” Althoff coach Greg Leib said after his team’s season ended at 30-4. “That’s about how everybody feels right now. But in time we’ll be able to reflect back and understand that we did accomplish some great things this year and our team play led us to this situation.”
In the first championship game battle between parochial schools in state basketball tournament history, St. Joseph emerged as the victor.
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Althoff sophomore Jordan Goodwin finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, including a pair of late 3-pointers to help keep it close, while sophomore C.J. Coldon and junior Tarkus Ferguson scored 12 each. Junior Brendon Gooch added 10 points for Althoff.
Nebraska recruit Glynn Watson led the Chargers (29-6) with 19 points while 6-foot-11 junior Division I recruit Nick Rakocevic was also a force with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Joffery Brown contributed another 15 points.
Down 33-22 early in the second half after an 11-0 run that stretched between the second and third quarter, the Crusaders would not go away.
Three-pointers by Marvin Bateman and Tarkus Ferguson helped ignite the comeback along with Goodwin’s bull-like moves to the basket.
After Goodwin dropped in as shot to cut it to two, a runner by Brendon Gooch tied it 43-43 with 6:47 remaining in the fourth quarter as the large Althoff contingent was as loud as it had been all afternoon.
However, they were quickly silenced when Watson answered almost immediately with a 3-pointer. Watson was relentless in the second half, as was Rakosevic. The pair combined for 23 points in the second half and kept pulling the plug on any Althoff comeback hopes, including a late 6-0 run that helped clinch it.
“They’re such a good team, our margin of error was much smaller playing from behind like we had to do,” Leib said. “We needed them to miss some shots and make some mistakes. That’s why they’re the state champs, they did not do those things.
“I thought (Rakosevic) was much more active this game than when we saw them the last time, His presence inside around the glass created some difficulties.”
Rakosevic fouled out of the Chargers’ 97-95 double-overtime win over Althoff earlier this season, but this time played much more of an active role by scoring, rebounding and constantly altering or affecting shots.
“I think we’ve got to get in the weight room,” Goodwin said. “They outmuscled us down low. We’ve just got to focus more. We’re young, next year we should be right back here where we are now.”
Goodwin wasn’t good at holding back any emotions. This loss hurt him and his teammates deeply.
Even though the majority of the Althoff regulars are sophomores and juniors, more state tournament trips are not guaranteed.
“For me, I think we accomplished something but we failed,” Goodwin said. “But I think next year we know what it’s going to be like so we’ve just got to work harder. We’ve just got to have more heart and get bigger.”
The Crusaders also hurt themselves by missing all five of their free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter and were 4-of-13 at the line in the game. That’s a problem that had surfaced for them at various times throughout the season.
St. Joseph was hardly better, hitting just 13-of-25 free throws. This one lacked some of the drama from St. Joseph’s double-OT thriller at the Bank of O’Fallon Shootout, but Pingatore knew the Crusaders were coming hard with a state title on the line.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Pingatore said. “Last time we played them it was 97-95. When we had the nine-point lead at halftime and they made the run at us and all of a sudden it was a two-point game ... all I had visions of was that game, whether it was going to go to overtime. The fact that they owed us ... I’m worried if it’s going to go to overtime we’re going to lose a close one.
“Those are goofy things that as a coach you do. The kids hung in and did what they were supposed to do.”
The Chargers used a 6-0 run in the first quarter to establish and early lead, then closed out the first half with a 9-0 run to take a 31-22 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
Althoff struggled to find a rhythm from 3-point range, missing 13 of its 16 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half and just 9-for-25 in the game. Turnovers also were an issue, with the Crusaders committing eight and being outscored 20-8 inside.
It was Althoff’s first state finals appearance after never prviously advancing further than a super-sectional appearance in 1994. Leib and the players said losing was tough so close to their ultimate goal of a state championship.
“These guys don’t like this feeling right now,” Leib said. “They’ve competed all year to get themselves to this place and they realize that. I don’t have to beat them down on it. That’s why it’s so fun to coach kids like these guys.”