Newman has proven itself to be the class of Class 1A boys basketball teams in this part of the state.
Now the Comets get the chance to see how they stack up with one of Chicago’s best small-school squads in Providence St. Mel. They will tangle tonight at the DeKalb Supersectional, and the winner advances to the state tournament that begins Friday in Peoria.
Newman (27-4) has been on the cusp of a state tourney berth, but has been denied on three occasions. It fell to Peoria Bergan back in the 1979-80 season; to North Shore Country Day in 2011-12; and to Bloomington Central Catholic in 2013-14. Ray Sharp coached the two most recent losses, and is hoping for a different result.
“I’m hoping the third time’s a charm, because we’re 0-2 up in DeKalb,” Sharp said. “Hopefully we play really well and get a chance to win the game. St. Mel is a great team, but you expect to play great teams this time of year. There’s eight teams left, so it’s not like you’re going to play a weak team. Hopefully we’ll play well enough to have a chance to win at the end.”
St. Mel (18-9) is riding a 10-game winning streak. When asked about the Knights, Sharp noted their athleticism is off the charts, and they are very balanced with seven players who average at least five points per game.
“Normally there would three, four, maybe five for a good team and they’ve got seven, so that kind of tells you their depth,” Sharp said.
St. Mel has an all-junior starting lineup. Deion Jackson, a 6-foot-3 guard, is the leading scorer at 14.4 points per game, while a pair of 6-1 guards, Eric Jordan and Tyriel Nelson, average 9.7 and 8.2 points a game, respectively.
Running the show is Tim Ervin II, son of coach Tim Ervin. At 5-6, Ervin II averages 8.1 points and 5.3 assists, and is a defensive standout as an on-ball defender.
“His assist-to-turnover ratio is great, over 4-to-1, and that’s really good for a high school guard,” Sharp said. “That’s good for a college guard. You can tell he takes care of the basketball, finds guys open and gets good shots.”
Holding down the middle is 6-10, 280-pound Taeyon Neal, who averages 5.8 points and 6.6 boards per contest. He figures to provide quite a challenge for Newman’s sophomore post, Devon House.
“It’ll be something for Devon to actually have to make a move to get a shot off,” Sharp said. “It won’t be as easy to just turn around and shoot.”
The 6-7 House, who is averaging 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, is looking forward to the challenge of taking on Neal.
“I’ve been waiting for this game and to play against a big guy, because I haven’t played against one in a while,” House said. “I think I’ll do fine this game, because I’m used to playing against bigs in AAU ball. It’s going to be fun, to see how it turns out.”
Something the teams have in common is their affinity for the 3-point shot. Newman is 217-for-703 on the season, or 30.9 percent. St. Mel has converted 172 of 526 tries, or 33 percent.
“They’re not afraid to shoot the 3 because they’re very good offensive rebounders,” Sharp said. “They go and get the ball if they miss.”
“They board hard,” Newman senior guard Cade Gorzny added. “If we hit the boards and play good defense, I think we’ll have a good shot.”
St. Mel last advanced to state in 2013-14, when it placed third in Class 2A. The Knights also have a state tournament history with teams from the Sauk Valley.
In 1998-99, St. Mel lost 47-44 to eventual champion Rock Falls in the Class A quarterfinals. In 2001-02, the Knights lost to Bureau Valley 60-53, also in the Class A quarterfinals, and the Storm went on to place third at state.