By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
When the basketball season began, nobody thought Curie would end up being the state champions in Class 4A. But nobody told the Condors that and with just one senior on their roster, Curie won their first state championship in school history. The Condors defeated Benet 65-59 in Peoria over the weekend in the title game after beating Rockford Auburn 55-53 in the semifinals. Their win was as shocking to them as it was to everyone else.
“I still can’t believe this,” said senior Devin Gage, who gave Curie the lead late in the third quarter on a pair of back to back three-point field goals. “We have had to battle all year for respect and now everyone has no choice but to respect us because we have the trophy.”
Benet (31-4) came into the game as the favorite after defeating top-ranked Simeon on a last second shot in the semifinals. But Curie (28-5) showed the same resilience in the championship game that they had all season. They overcame being down early to take control late in the third quarter and pushed their lead to double digits in the fourth quarter to cruise to victory.
“It’s not how you start a game, it’s how you finish,” said Gage, a DePaul recruit. “I wanted that state championship.”
Benet was on fire early, converting on a high percentage of their shots to lead for the first 22 minutes of playing time. But they went on a six minute cold streak did not score a point, that was the difference in the game.
“I told my guys that if we were going to win this game we were going to have to start playing some defense,” said Curie coach Mike Oliver. “I knew we would not be able to stay with them if it turned into just making shots. We had to take control of the game and we could not do that offensively, we had to do it defensively.”
Once Curie clamped down defensively it panicked the Redwings who got out of their structured offense. Their impatience on offense led to an increase in the Tempo of the game that benefited Curie.
“We kind of let the game get away from us,” said Benet star Jason Malonga. “We got away from what we do best, sharing the ball and taking good shots. And a lot of the good shots we were getting weren’t falling down, so we had a rough go in the second half.”
Gage scored 23 points to lead Curie. The win was poetic justice for him, when Curie’s best team two years ago had their city title stripped from them for having ineligible players and a last minute decision to allow them to play in the state series two hours before their scheduled game caused so much friction they lost to DuSable in the first round. Then earlier this season Coach Oliver was disciplined by the
IHSA and CPS after an incident in Michigan during a tournament in which he pulled his team off the floor resulting in a forfeit. Oliver said getting a state title is taking the monkey off his program’s back and he seconded Gage’s comments about now having to be respected.
“We are right up there with the big guys now; Simeon, Morgan Park and Young. The guys understood all season that if they stood together they could make history,” Oliver said.
With Simeon’s lost in the semifinals, it interrupted what many were hoping to see; an all Chicago Public League Final. But the Wolverines rebounded in the consolation game and finished in third. For Coach Rob Smith, it was not the trophy he wanted or the one Simeon fans expect, but he said just like Morgan Park Coach Nick Irvin, “you can’t win them all.”
“We have high standards within our program. But sometimes people forget these are kids playing a game, talented kids but not professionals,” Smith said. “Sometimes the other team is just better. We will work hard in the offseason and try to get down here again next year.”