FREEPORT – The quiet murmurs and downcast eyes of the Sauk Valley Skyhawks said it all Sunday night. Another season cut short, just when it looked like the Skyhawks were the favorite to claim their first Region IV title in a decade.
Malcolm X built a double-digit lead in the Region IV tournament semifinals Sunday, and Sauk never could back over the hump in a 96-94 loss at Highland Community College.
“You look at the guys on this team, the talent and hustle and desire, and you feel like you should have done something more, gone even further,” Sauk coach Russ Damhoff said. “We always believe, even when we’re down in the final minute, but we just can’t seem to find a way to pull out the win.”
Last year, Sauk (21-11) rallied to within one point in the final minute before suffering a regional semifinal loss. This time around, the Skyhawks cut a 12-point deficit to two, 94-92, in the final 55 seconds.
After drawing a charge with 40 seconds left, Sauk missed an open look. But Cody Behrens grabbed the weak-side offensive rebound with 15 seconds to play.
The Skyhawks called timeout to set up one final play.
But they never got the chance to run it. Malcolm X’s Maurice Alexander swiped the inbounds pass, bolted up the sideline, and scored the game-sealing layup with 9.9 seconds left. He hit the tough leaner over Carlos Hendrix, who did everything he could to stop the score and avoid picking up his fifth foul.
Behrens put back his own miss on the other end, but Malcolm X caught the inbounds pass after Sauk’s final timeout and held on for the final 6-tenths of a second.
“I didn’t even think about not getting the ball in bounds, couldn’t even believe that would happen,” Damhoff said. “I think we got caught being a little nonchalant, and their guy makes a great play.
“But I feel like maybe I didn’t set up a formation to get the ball in like I could have. I feel like maybe I could’ve given my guys a little more help.”
The Skyhawks battled all night, but Malcolm X (21-11) never relinquished the lead after snapping a 31-all tie with 6 minutes left in the first half on Jeremiah Moore’s 3-pointer from the right wing.
Malcolm X stretched the margin to as many as 12 points (73-61) with 11:09 remaining, but Sauk wouldn’t go away. The Skyhawks kept pestering, mostly in the form of sophomore guard Jalen Riley. His own personal 8-0 run turned that 12-point deficit into five (73-68) with 9:20 to go, then his 3 off a screen on the right wing cut it to two, 75-73, with 8:06 to play.
After Malcolm X extended the lead back to nine (91-82) with 3:27 left, Sauk again came charging back. After a pair of Riley free throws, Magd Owayed assisted on a layup by Daven Ottley and Carlos Hendrix’s 3 to get back within 92-89. Malcolm X split two pairs of free throws to take a 94-89 lead, then Riley buried his seventh 3 of the game, again off a screen on the right wing, to get the Skyhawks to within 94-92 with 53.7 seconds to play.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” said Riley, who led Sauk with 41 points, six assists and four steals, and also grabbed four rebounds. “We got caught playing from behind, and they made some good plays and we never got the chance to make them chase us.”
Ottley added 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, and Behrens finished with 10 points and seven boards. Hendrix had nine points and three assists, and Owayed stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. The Skyhawks shot 51.5 percent from the field (35-for-68) and 52.6 percent from beyond the arc (10-for-19), but hit just 14 of their 28 free throws after being in the bonus for the final 12 minutes of the game.
“We missed some shots and free throws in crucial situations,” Damhoff said, “but I thought we lost the game by giving up 52 points in the first half. I fell in love too much with our best defense, and didn’t switch it up between man and zone as much as I should have. We had to chase them on the scoreboard all night, and give Malcolm X a lot of credit for making plays and hitting shots when they needed to. It’s just a tough opportunity we let get away.”
McKnight led Malcolm X with 25 points and four assists, and Moore had 23 points and three assists. Clarence Heath had 16 points and eight rebounds, and Winston Williams added 13 points, five boards, two steals and two blocks. The Hawks matched Sauk’s 35 field goals and 10 3s, but hit 16 of their 25 free throws.
Third-seeded Malcolm X advances to tonight’s Region IV title game, where it will face fourth-seeded Kankakee. Kankakee upset top-seeded Highland 63-62 in overtime in Sunday’s first regional semifinal.
“The big thing for us tonight was we had our normal scorers playing well, but also had some role players step up and do some good things for us,” Malcolm X coach Shawn Chism said. “Our focus tonight was to not worry about the mistakes we made, just keep our heads and refocus on what was ahead of us instead of what had already happened.
“We hit our free throws, they missed theirs, and we got the game into the 90s, where we always want it. We had everybody contributing, and now we need to have that same thing [Monday] in the championship game.”
Region IV tournament semifinal
Malcolm X 96, Sauk Valley 94
Star of the game: Jalen Riley, Sauk, 41 points, 6 assists, 4 steals, 4 rebounds
Key performers: Montrice McKnight, Malcolm X, 25 points, 4 assists; Jeremiah Moore, Malcolm X, 23 points, 3 assists; Daven Ottley, Sauk, 19 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks
Up next: Region IV tournament championship, Malcolm X vs. Kankakee, 7:30 p.m. today