It wasn’t supposed to end this soon.
Lyons Township had visions of a long playoff run after earning the No. 1 seed at the Class 4A East Aurora Sectional.
But the Lions (23-6) saw their dreams dashed by a 60-57 loss to eight-seeded Metea Valley in Friday’s Proviso West Regional championship game.
“I feel bad for the kids,” Lyons Township coach Tom Sloan said. “It feels like [the exit] is too early but that’s high school basketball. We could have gone down on Wednesday; it would not have been a total shock.”
In retrospect, LT’s 55-48 semifinal victory over 15th-seeded Proviso West two nights before was a harbinger of things to come.
Nothing came easy for the Lions, who did not play poorly but were never able to dominate.
Metea Valley (18-12) extended its winning streak to 10 games by playing tough defense and making free throws when it counted, something LT did not do.
The Mustangs missed five foul shots in the first half but sank 15-of-18 in the second half while the Lions were just 19-for-35. Sloan said that was costly.
“I think we missed 16 in a game that came down to three points and that makes a big difference,” Sloan said. “But credit goes to Metea. They played very well.
“They got offensive rebounds and loose balls and they made their free throws down the stretch.”
Even so, the Lions had good opportunities to win or at least force overtime at the end of a tension-filled contest that featured 18 lead changes and no lead bigger than five points.
LT was down 56-51 when star Harrison Niego sank a baseline jumper with 1:10 left to start a rally. The Lions twice got within a point, the last when Niego made two free throws with 43.2 seconds remaining.
After Metea split a pair of free throws to make it 59-57, LT called timeout with 9.2 to go and then got the ball into Niego, who was double-teamed at the top of the key.
Niego passed to his brother, Connor, whose wide-open three-point try rimmed out. Mark Konkle rebounded for Metea and was fouled. He made the first free throw with 2.9 remaining and missed the second.
Harrison Niego rebounded and unleashed a half-court shot that struck the back of the rim as time expired.
“Even with nine seconds left, I thought it was going to happen,” Sloan said. “Harrison had the ball and Connor got a wide-open three that would have put us up by one. Thought it was going in, didn’t go in.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get a bounce when we needed one late, but credit goes to Metea. They won the game. It wasn’t like the game was given to them. They won it so they deserve to move on.”
Dei’Ron Delarosa scored 19 points to lead the Mustangs, while Niego ended his stellar three-year varsity career with 24 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
“He’s a great basketball player,” Delarosa said. “He was hard to defend. He was coming off picks, shooting threes, hard to defend. But we got it done.”
The Mustangs did it despite the efforts of Niego and senior forward Jaquan Phipps, who had 12 points and 17 rebounds. Sean Lannan added 10 points and Connor Niego seven points and seven boards for the Lions.
“There’s no blame to point at anyone; it just happens,” Sloan said. “[The Lions] shoot tons and tons of free throws and we just didn’t make as many as we wanted to tonight.
“But I’m awfully proud of our kids’ effort. It was a great year.”