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Free throws were at premium Friday night, but St. Charles North guard Tony Neari delivered the goods.
Neari made all four of his free throws with the game on the line in the final minute, helping St. Charles North hold off Downers Grove South 53-48 on the final day of pool play at the 54th Annual Ron Johnson Thanksgiving Tournament at St. Charles East.
The win sets up what should be a great championship game Saturday night between the North Stars (3-0) and crosstown rival St. Charles East (3-0), which stunned St. Joseph 71-53 to reach the title match for the first time since the 1970s. The North Stars will be appearing in their first title game.
Neari, a 6-0 senior, led the North Stars with 15 points, seven of which came in the fourth quarter. His first two free throws gave North a 50-45 lead with 39.3 seconds remaining and his final two made it 52-48 after Downers South’s Jordan Cannon sank a three-pointer to pull the Mustangs within one with 10.4 seconds left.
“That was what you expect from a senior point guard,” St. Charles North coach Tom Poulin said. “He’s had a good tournament. I thought he did a better job today of just game management and understanding time and score and getting us in the right spots and making sure we did the right thing.
“Then when we was at the line he knocks them down, so we’re lucky to have him.”
The rest of the North Stars were a combined 5-for-13 from the line. The Mustangs (2-1) also struggled, making just 4-0f-9.
“Tonight they did a good job denying our main shooter, [Alec] Goetz, so someone had to step up and it just happened to be me,” said Neari, who also made 4-of-6 shots from the floor, including a trio of three-pointers. “We’re going to have a new leading scorer every night, so everyone is just getting involved.”
Goetz, a 6-1 junior sharpshooter, was held to eight points on 3-for-9 shooting, but he did sink two three-pointers, including the go-ahead trey from the left corner that put the North Stars ahead to stay at 45-42 with 2:19 left.
“Teams are going all-out denying him after the first couple games, which is what we expect [will happen] all season, so we’ll have to do a better job of getting him open, but he’s never going to pass up an open look,” Poulin said. “We don’t want him to do that, so we’re glad that he was able to knock that one down.”
Quinten Payne added 13 points and six rebounds and Justin Stanko had 10 points, eight boards and three assists for St. Charles North, which trailed 26-17 late in the second quarter before embarking on a 15-0 run bridging intermission. Downers South tied it twice after that, the last time at 42-42 when Robert Mara made two free throws with 2:30 to go, but could never regain the lead.
“We’ve just got to control the tempo a little bit better,” Neari said. “We need to play better with the lead more, but as the season goes on we’ll get better. Everyone contributed tonight so it feels good.”
Cannon led Downers South with 15 points but Mara, who had six points and nine rebounds, was the only other Mustang to score more than five.