Riverside-Brookfield junior guard Damonta Henry is a game-changer. He proved it during the last three quarters of the Bulldogs' 72-57 win over Fenwick in an intriguing semifinal matchup of the RB Regional on Tuesday night.
With Henry on the bench the entire first quarter, the visiting Friars seized a 16-10 lead sparked by eight points from Fenwick point guard Luke Lattner and four points from center Sam Ainsworth.
"Early in the first half, we set the tempo at our kind of pace," Lattner said. "We felt confident we could win the game, but in the second half we were kind of chasing them."
Actually, RB (23-4) had the Friars reeling even earlier when Henry's second-quarter insertion into the game triggered a 24-12 run by the Bulldogs en route to a 34-28 halftime advantage. At the 3:30 mark of the second quarter, Henry jumped a passing lane for a steal and layup which put RB up for good at 23-22.
"Damonta really brought it for us," RB coach Tom McCloskey said. "We knew it was going to be a tough game. I thought we played excellent basketball against a very good team. Our running game opened things up and we were able to get some easy baskets."
While Henry's speed, scoring and playmaking ability clearly changed the tempo and "feel" of the game, RB per usual benefitted from the contributions of many players, placing four Bulldogs in double figures scoring.
Henry (21 points, six assists), Eric Loury (13 points), Miki Ljuboja (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Luke Nortier (10 points, six rebounds) led RB. Forward Louis Marino chipped in nine points on three timely shots from beyond the three-point arc, two treys coming during the Bulldogs' slow start to keep them within striking distance of the fired up Friars.
"A lot of our players didn't play much [on varsity] last year so I think we had the jitterbugs," Henry said. "As the game went on we became more relaxed. I just tried to get my teammates involved, distribute the ball, score when I had good looks, and do whatever my team needs to win."
Lattner paced the Friars with a game-high 25 points and Ainsworth finished with nine points.
"Coach (McCloskey) told me that Lattner is good going left so I tried to make him go right," Loury said. "He beat me a few times off the dribble but I just tried to contain him. We did a good job defensively overall."
Other than Lattner's consistent array of dribble-drive midrange jumpers and drives to the rim, Fenwick struggled finding a second scorer especially considering Ainsworth was limited by an injury that occurred against Brother Rice last week.
In the fourth quarter, Fenwick pulled within 10 at 54-44 on a Lattner three-pointer at the 7:05 mark; however, RB responded with an 18-13 scoring edge the rest of the way to punch their ticket for Friday's regional championship game against Crane.
The Cougars, who edged Austin 54-47 in the other RB regional semifinal, are led by prolific scorer Willie Conner.
For the Friars (12-13), Tuesday's loss draws a season highlighted by a second-half of the schedule surge to a close. Leading into its first-ever Class 3A playoffs appearance Fenwick was in Class 4A previously - the Friars won eight of their last 11 games. With only three seniors on their roster of 19 players, Fenwick will return with a renewed hunger and plenty of accrued game experience for next season.
"We definitely made some progress as the season went along," Fenwick coach John Quinn said. "We lost a number of close games and there were different reasons for those losses. This was the third year in a row we haven't been a real effective free throw shooting team and that cost us a few ballgames."
On an interesting side note, the RB-Fenwick game featured such luminaries as Governor Pat Quinn, former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach and former RB star Ryan Jackson, who was recently named "Freshman of the Year" playing for Lewis University in the Great Lakes Valley Conference of Division II college basketball.
The Bulldogs, riding a 16-game winning streak, hope to avenge a sectional title game loss to Crane last year, when they take on the Cougars for the RB Regional championship this Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"I'm pretty excited to play Crane," Henry said. "We lost to [Crane] last year so we're looking for revenge."