By Patrice Nkrumah, Chicago Crusader
The Chicago Public League served notice to the rest of the state last weekend that boys’ basketball is their sport. Morgan Park (3A) and Whitney Young (4A) brought home titles in their respective classes a week after Orr won the 2A title. In the meantime, Simeon finished second in 4A after losing to Young in overtime in the title game. The success in the state tournament means CPL teams captured three of the four championships that were available.
“I think we made a statement about our league and how strong it is,” said Morgan Park Coach Nick Irvin, who won his third title. “We have the best league not just in the state, but in the country. People come from all over the country to watch Public League basketball. And the college recruiting shows it too. I have a lot of respect for the downstate and suburban teams as well. There is great basketball here in Illinois no doubt, but Public League has the best.”
Morgan Park’s win in both the semifinal against Springfield Lanphier and championship against Fenwick were some of the most impressive in the history of the state series, according to many. They lost their best player, All-State guard Ayo Dusunmu four minutes into the semifinal game, but persevered winning 60-53. In the championship game, they were down by 11 with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter before storming back in the late stages to send the game into overtime. They iced the game at the free throw line after two of Fenwick’s best players fouled out, to win 69-67.
“We never give up and we always put on a show,” Irvin said. “I just kept coaching and the kids just kept playing. In that situation you try not to focus on the score and just keep plugging away little by little and let the score take care of itself.”
For Whitney Young, they overcame their own obstacles. Twice this season they had lost to Simeon. But the Dolphins, who won their fourth state title overall were aided by a lot of fan support in Peoria. Out of the three CPL schools, they by far had the largest fan base.
“We heard you in those stands, and your energy propelled us to victory. So I want to give all our fans a big round of applause, because you guys are phenomenal,” said Young Coach Tyrone Slaughter, during a victory celebration at the school March 19th.
Young is also being held up as an example that athletics and academic success can go hand in hand. At a time when many principals ignore athletics to concentrate solely on academics, Young’s philosophy has proven dividends for years.
“I have to credit my principal Dr. Joyce Kenner for her philosophy and strong support of the athletic programs here at Young,” Slaughter said. “Our student athletes know from day one they are going to have to pull grades to play for me. It’s part of our culture. We want well-rounded individuals.”
Lucas Williamson scored 19 points in the win over Simeon. The senior relished in the moment of being a champion with his parents and teammates. He said beating a rival school like Simeon on the biggest stage was the ultimate way to end his career.
“You could not have written this any better. I mean the game went to overtime and it was a battle the entire time,” he said. “This was a great game for everybody. It’s the perfect way to end my high school career.”
Simeon (30-4) led at halftime 29-22 bolstered by a stingy zone defense that had stifled Young (27-7) all season. But in the second half, the Dolphins began to rally and tied the game at 34 midway through the third quarter. Slaughter said the difference was simple.
“We started making our outside shots,” he said.
A three-point field goal by Williamson near the end of the third gave Young a lead. That is when Simeon went cold. The Wolverines made only one field goal in the final minutes 11 minutes of regulation time. Simeon Coach Robert Smith credited the Dolphins defense, but said his team basically froze up at the worst time. The Wolverines were held scoreless in overtime and were outscored 10-0 in the extra session.
After the game tensions were high among some Simeon fans who were visibly disappointed with some of the decisions Smith made during the contest. Sources have told Crusader, Smith has been considering stepping down from the position for the past few seasons because of the pressure to win at Simeon, which has a storied tradition that dates back to the 1980’s.
Smith has refused to comment on his future at the school.