On Friday evening at Bloom Township High School, Simeon and Thornton were scheduled to play in the class 4A Bloom Sectional final high school basketball game when an AAU game broke out. It turned out to be one of the most fun and exciting high school games I have ever watched with high energy, fast action up and down the court, great basketball, great plays, incredible crossover moves and a soldout crowd reacting to every hoop, block, steal and dunk by really talented players on both teams.
After watching Simeon for six years, this was not their normal style of play, usually a patient half-court offense with good ball movement, accurate outside shooting, drives and kicks and big men competing hard underneath. Not on this night. Right from the jump, head coach Robert Smith had his team running with long quick passes up the court for quick scores. They went up 12-0 to start the game and the Thornton head coach, Tai Streets, was getting more and more upset with each basket along with his team’s inability to score. But then, Curtis Dilworth hit a three from the left side and some of the anxiety was quelled. The Thornton faithful cheered loudly, believing the game was on. It was.
Point guard, Patrick Rucker, and two-guard, Sam Taylor III, rocketed up and down the court feeding a very talented center, Orlando Allen Jr. After each basket, they turned and sprinted back trying to catch up to Simeon’s fast-break, which was usually a quick in-bound pass to point guard Evan Gilyard on the left side, who would make a long quick pass over the half-court mark to Zach Norvell, who looked for Madison Lowery, Ben Coupet or senior James Gordon under the basket for a layup or dunk. In what seemed like only 3 seconds, Simeon was scoring, or attempting to score, throughout the entire first half. If the ball was inbound to the right side, it was usually senior forward Josh Thomas exploding up the court showing great ball-handling skills and athleticism for a big, strong kid. Unlike the Marian Catholic game, there wasn’t a ton of outside shooting. With each play, shot, steal or dunk by Thornton, their fans reacted with loud cheers followed by looks and taunts aimed at the other side of the stands toward the Simeon fans. When Simeon scored, Wolverine fans returned the barbs with equal energy. After a fight on Wednesday involving Thornton fans that ended the game against Crete-Monee, the hope was it wouldn’t escalate beyond cheers and taunts.
Thornton's impressive record of 25-3 was earned with a great coach and talent that is very good, very fast and very competitive. A team’s performance on the court reflects their coach. That was 100 percent true of Thornton and their coach, Tai Streets, a former wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions who is considered one of Illinois best three-sport athletes. On the sidelines, he exhibited an intensity and competitive spirit that all 2,000 in the stands watched and his team fed off.Streets was intense, angry, vocal, slapping his hands together to make his points to the ref and his team. He came very close to being teed-up several times during the first half. At one point in the first quarter, more fans were watching Streets than the game.
With a 12-point lead and less than a minute to play in the first half, coach Smith inserted sophomore forward Talen Horton-Tucker who delivered a big three-point shot from the right corner to beat the buzzer and send Simeon to the locker room with a 43-28 lead at halftime. Somehow, Streets avoided a technical, but did get a warning. As he walked off the court, there was no doubt he would return with an aggressive game-plan to close the gap and try to win this game. Would Simeon be ready for it?
Well, Robert Smith didn’t win six Illinois 4A State Championships twiddling his thumbs and eating Bonbons. When the second half started, he pulled back his troops into a zone defense, but continued to put pressure on the ballhandler. He would make nothing easy for Thornton.If they wanted to score, they would have to earn it. Streets, on the other hand, put a really aggressive full-court press on the Wolverines that resulted in a frantic energy as Simeon moved the ball up court with precision, but were so energized they had trouble finishing and Thornton closed the gap to 45-36 with 5:27 in the third quarter.
Two minutes later, coach Smith watched his team get a bit too fancy and loose with the ball, called a timeout and read the riot act to the number one team in the State. Coach Smith is just as much a competitor as Streets and it was his turn to be intense, angry, vocal, slapping his hands together to make his points. He knew that his team could not get comfortable with the lead. They had to stay focused, make good passes and smart plays or Streets' gang would catch them. Smith’s been in this situation before and knows no lead is safe.
His team returned to the court more focused and determined and quickly built the lead back up, finishing the third quarter with a 61-43 lead. The most remarkable thing to watch in that quarter however, was 6’8” senior center/forward Ben Coupet. Having watched Coupet for two years, he could be described as a good player, but not one who often makes a major impact on a game. Well, this AAU style of play brought out the best in young Mr. Coupet. This kid is good! He showed the entire package with the tremendous ball-handling skills of a point guard, shooting ability of a two-guard hitting from the outside, strength of a power-forward going hard to the hoop, and the jumping and rebounding ability of a center, not to mention blocking the shot of any Thornton player driving to the rim. Having watched his frustration this year, I was really happy for him and hope he takes his talents to the college level.
When the fourth quarter started, it was do or die for Thornton and they put it all out on the court. Their press produced steals and quick layups. They were hitting shots from the outside. Sam Taylor III was amazing to watch. He is really fast and has the athleticism to do anything on the basketball court. Center, Orlando Allen Jr., who seemed to keep his calm throughout the mayhem that surrounded him, was leading the scoring attack in the fourth quarter for Thornton with rebounds and great moves underneath the basket.
With 6:18 left, a bad Simeon inbound pass was picked off by Thornton's point-guard Patrick Rucker who was fouled and hit both free-throws. Hope was still alive. But in the next few minutes as Simeon maintained their lead, the Thornton fans frustration poured over and a fight did break out in the stands. Kudos to Bloom Townships security because they ended that fight fairly quickly, escorted the offenders out and within a few minutes, play resumed.
Curtis Dilworth hit a big three for Thornton with 4:46 left but as hard as they tried, they couldn’t close the gap. As Simeon went to the free-throw line time after time, an uh oh, filled the minds of Wolverine fans watching too many balls escape the netting. This was an issue for the team at the start of the season and the one I’m certain coach Smith will be drilling his players on in the next week. With one minute left and fans heading for the exit, Simeon led 86-72 and won the game 88-75.
Josh Thomas was the high scorer for Simeon with 23 points and 6 rebounds, Zach Norvell 16 points, Talen Horton-Tucker with 12 and Ben Coupet with 8 points and 8 rebounds. For Thornton, Curtis Dilworth had the game-high with 33 points.
After the teams shook hands, the Simeon players celebrated on the court as a TV crew descended on them for post-game interviews, which Zach Norvell handled as team spokesperson.
Filed under: Ben Coupet, Bloom Sectionals Final, Coach Robert Smith, Coach Tai Streets, Comcast SportsNet Chicago, Curtis Dilworth, Evan Gilyard, high school basketball, IHSA basketball, Jabari Parker, James Gordon, Josh Thomas, Madison Lowerey, Orland Allen Jr., Paul Rucker, Sam Taylor III, Simeon High School, Simeon Wolverines, Talen Horton-Tucker, Uncategorized, Zach Norvell
Tags: Ben Coupet, Bloom High School, Curtis Dilworth, Derrick Rose, Evan Gilyard, IHSA 4A Sectionals Final, Jabari Parker, James Gordon, Josh Thomas, Orlando Allen Jr., Paul Rucker, Robert Smith, Sam Taylor III, Simeon High School, Simeon Wolverines, Simeon Wolverines basketball, Tai Streets, Talen Horton-Tucker, Thornton High School, Zach Norvell