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Kaneland's Matt Limbrunner goes to the basket through two St. Francis defenders at the Illinois Math and Science Academy regional on Wednesday, February 27, 2013, in Aurora. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
After watching the upset bug bite Wheaton Academy earlier in the evening at the Class 3A IMSA Regional semifinals, St. Francis knew better than to take Kaneland lightly.
The Spartans had beaten Kaneland 63-50 in the regular season, but that didn’t mean much after Aurora Central Catholic avenged two blowout losses in eliminating top-seeded Wheaton Academy 41-37 on Wednesday.
So when his team got into a similarly tight defensive battle, St. Francis coach Bob Ward felt a bit nervous. Fortunately for him, the Spartans used a game-ending 14-1 run to knock off the Knights 43-32 to advance to Friday’s regional final.
“Don’t tell me that [ACC win] wasn’t going through my mind a little bit,” Ward said. “Although I’ll tell you what, we’re a 2 [seed] and [Kaneland] is a 3. They’re hard to guard and I thought we did a really good job defensively.”
That’s for sure. Kaneland (16-12), which led by as many as five points early on, led 26-25 at the end of three quarters and went ahead 31-29 on a three-pointer by senior Matt Limbrunner with 4:16 left in the fourth quarter.
But that proved to be the last basket for the Knights. St. Francis scored on its next four possessions, tying the game on a pull-up jumper by Tim Zettinger and taking the lead for good on an inside bucket by Andrew Kimball with 2:52 remaining.
Zettinger was the only St. Francis player to score in double figures, tallying eight of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. His confidence never wavered even after watching Wheaton Academy get beat.
“I wasn’t really worried, but we realized after that game that nobody really had just a path to go to the regional championship,” Zettinger said. “The seniors talked to the juniors and the younger guys, made sure they know anybody can upset anybody in the state tournament.”
The Spartans avoided such a fate by tightening their defense in the fourth quarter. Kaneland had made 6-of-10 shots in the third quarter, but went just 1-for-12 in the fourth period.
“We were giving up easy baskets, we were giving up second-chance points and we’re not like that,” Zettinger said. “We’re a defensive team. Our goal is to [allow] single-digits each quarter.”
The Spartans’ starting five of Zettinger, Kimball, Jason Pisarski, Matt Bonner and Kevin McShea accomplished that three times in this one.
“We’re a unit. We work together and I think we really stressed that in the fourth quarter,” Zettinger said. “We wanted to make sure we worked together and didn’t give up easy baskets. If they were going to beat us, they were going to have to beat us from the outside.”
The Knights couldn’t do that. They went 2-for-17 from three-point range, including 1-for-12 in the second half.
“I thought we did a great job defensively,” Kaneland coach Brian Johnson said. “With about four minutes to go, they had 29 points. That’s a pretty good defensive effort on our part and obviously a good defensive effort on their part. But they sealed the deal by executing at the end and we couldn’t hit shots at the end.”
The Spartans did, especially from the free-throw line. St. Francis was 15-for-20 from the stripe, led by Zettinger, who made 9 of 12 attempts, including his last six.
“Tim came off the bench for that sectional final team last year and I’m so proud of him because he’s worked very, very hard on his free throws this year,” Ward said. “He’s the type of kid that gets in early and has worked on it and takes great pride in it. It was a real team win but it did come down to some real senior leadership.”
Ward also praised McShea, a senior forward who had seven points on 3-for-4 shooting and three rebounds.
“He’s been flying under the radar,” Ward said. “When we had no answer offensively, he hit a couple of those short corner jump shots that was really big.”
Kaneland was led by its two seniors, Limbrunner and Dan Miller. Miller had 10 points and six rebounds, while Limbrunner finished his career by recording nine points and eight rebounds.
“They gave me all they had,” Johnson said. “They were part of my first freshman class when I got the job, so then you see them mature and grow as basketball players and young men. They’re great young men; respectful and great in the classroom. I just can’t say enough about those two.”