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Hinckley-Big Rock's Zack Michels looks to shoot as Aurora Christian's Johnathan Harrell (12) defends on Thursday, December 27, 2012, at the Plano Christmas Classic. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Apparently the message from first-year coach Pat McNamara is sinking in.
Haydn McNelis came off the bench and provided a second quarter spark at both ends of the floor Thursday, lifting Aurora Christian to a 56-46 quarterfinal win over Hinckley-Big Rock at the 50th Annual Plano Christmas Classic.
The Eagles trailed the Royals 18-13 midway through the second quarter when McNelis, a 6-foot senior, scored on a putback that started a 16-2 Aurora Christian run to close out the half. He capped it by swishing through a three-pointer that beat the buzzer, giving his team a 29-20 lead.
McNamara has had his team switch from zone to man-to-man and it was the key against the 9-3 Royals with guards Johnathan Harrell and Ryan Suttle doing a nice job of hounding H-BR’s leading scorers: Jared Madden and Bernie Conley.
McNelis also had four second-quarter steals that helped lead to seven H-BR turnovers in the pivotal period.
“We really picked up our defense in the second quarter,” he said. “It’s a little different because we’ve been playing [zone] the last three years but I think it’s a good change for us. We’re real athletic and we go pretty deep on our bench.”
Despite giving up 83 points to Mendota the day before, ACS limited Madden to seven points and Conley five. They had combined for 51 the day before when the Royals put 88 against Mendota.
“We had the first quarter [leading 14-9] but then they had the stretch in the second which put us in a hole,” said H-BR coach Bill Sambrookes. “The second half was pretty much even.
“They did a good job of getting hands in the passing lanes. I told our kids we’ve got to give Aurora Christian credit, they did a good job of shutting down Jared and Bernie. It was hard for them to get open looks, and when they did, they were rushed because [the Eagles] were closing real nice.”
The Eagles, now 8-4 and winners of five straight, got double-figure scoring from four players: 15 from Cory Windle (nine rebounds), 11 each from Ryan McQuade (eight rebounds) and McNelis and 10 from Ryan Suttle, who made 5 of 6 free throws in the final 90 seconds to hold off the Royals.
“McNelis gave us a nice lift and we moved the ball down the court and shared it well,” said McNamara. “We’re sharing the ball a lot better than when we started the year and I thought the job Harrell and Suttle did on their two main men was the difference in the game.”
H-BR had 16 points each from 6-1 post Zach Michels and 6-3 forward Michael Bayler.
“That seeding was not a true measure of how they can play,” said Sambrookes. “[ACS is] coming off a state championship run in football. They were still playing football when other guys were playing in Thanksgiving tournaments. They’re getting in basketball shape and, as you can see, they’ve got great athletes.”
The win sends ACS to tonight’s 7 p.m. semifinal against defending tourney champ Belvidere, a 56-46 winner over Morris in another quarterfinal.