I'll admit it: I didn't think the short-handed West Aurora Blackhawks would be able to hang with Wheaton North on Saturday night. I was wrong.
From what I've seen and read, Wheaton North is the strongest squad in the DVC this season. At full strength, West is just a nose behind. But on Saturday, the Blackhawks were without two valuable senior starters, Marquise Stewart and Corbin Spearman. Both are suspended for a minimum of five games due to a violation of the athletic code.
I figured the Blackhawks would lose to a very good Falcons team by 8-12 points. Instead, West played extremely well and, in fact, should have won the game. Wheaton North prevailed 75-74 in three overtimes on a 3-pointer by Dave Pilalis at the buzzer.
Without a doubt, it was the game of the year in the DVC. And despite the loss, I came away convinced that West will win its regional, even if the suspended players do not return.
The Blackhawks' junior point guard, Markus Cocroft, has made a believer out of me. At 5-foot-8, he's the littlest guy on the floor, but I enjoy watching that kid play. Defensively, he disrupts the opponent with his quickness and activity. He's in the passing lanes constantly, making steals and generally being a pest.
Offensively, he's made big strides from his sophomore season to his junior year. On Saturday, he demonstrated a good feel for when to look for his own shot and when to set up his teammates. He finished with 24 points and had several nice assists.
About the only thing I don't like about Cocroft's game is his streaky and inconsistent free-throw shooting.
Tyler Thompson, after being a non-factor in the first half due to foul trouble, played impressively as well. Thompson is the kind of player who does the opposition a favor every time he takes a jump shot. He doesn't need to be on the perimeter. He needs to play around the basket. When he's making aggressive moves to the rim, good things happen for West Aurora.
That was the case in the third quarter Saturday, as Thompson got some easy buckets and also got Wheaton North in heavy foul trouble. By the end of the third quarter, the Blackhawks were in the bonus.
Thompson has a knack for getting himself to the foul line, which is a nice strength to have. Unfortunately, he needs to work on his foul shooting. He had 15 points Saturday. That's good, but he should have had 20 easy.
The Blackhawks made only 7 of 21 from the charity stripe Saturday. At one point, they missed 10 in a row. That's why they lost the game. It's a shame because the effort in every other area was tremendous.
West won't see a team as strong as Wheaton North in the regional. They'll play Wheaton Warrenville South, and likely Neuqua Valley. If Cocroft and Thompson play as they did Saturday, the Blackhawks will win. West Aurora has some nice role players, most notably Theo Hicks. But they need Cocroft and Thompson to carry the mail, so to speak, for the time being. I think they are capable.
Now, as for the sectional, the Blackhawk faithful must hope Stewart and Spearman do what they need to do to rejoin the team. In order to get past Wheaton North, Waubonsie Valley or top-seeded Batavia, the Blackhawks will need all hands on deck.