Brady Vaia (FILE)

Senior Brady Vaia and his Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball teammates needed to defend a last-second, game-tying three-pointer on Feb. 11 at Timothy Christian.

The shot never happened.

Vaia stole the ball just past half court with five seconds left and the Bulldogs won 53-49 to clinch the Metro Suburban Conference Blue title.

“I think hands down, easily [my most memorable steal]. An atmosphere like this, a conference championship game, we wanted to win it,” Vaia said.

The Bulldogs (20-5, 10-1 in MSC) own a one-game lead over St. Francis (22-8, 9-2) before their final league game on Feb. 15 at Aurora Christian. Head coach Mike Reingruber said regardless of the outcome, MSC bylaws will recognize RBHS as outright champions by sweeping the season series with St. Francis.

Since 2002, the Bulldogs have been conference champions all but two times. But they missed out on sharing last year’s title when they lost the league finale at home to Timothy 60-54 in overtime.

They got payback in front of the Trojans’ large and vociferous Senior Night crowd.

“This one feels really good after last year. It just feels amazing. This was just a great game,” said RBHS senior J.P. Hanley, the only remaining member of the 2020 championship roster. “It was one of the biggest crowds I’ve played against. They were great. They were loud. At the end of the game was the loudest I’ve ever had a gym been.”

Joevonn McCottry had 15 points with two three-pointers, Hanley had 12 points on four threes and Joe Gilhooley and Arius Alijosius had nine points each.

“That’s what we talked about, how they came to our place last year and took it from us and we wanted to return the favor,” Reingruber said. “But give them all of the credit in the world. They battled.”

Vaia finished with four points. Even after his steal, Vaia added the final touch by making one of two free throws with 1.4 seconds to put the Bulldogs ahead by two possessions.

“I think I’m shooting a pretty good percentage in that, towards the end, I couldn’t even hear a thing. All I could hear was the screaming from the fans. It was hard, but I had to focus in,” Vaia said.

After Alijosius’ third three put RBHS ahead 48-35 with 7:21 left, Timothy nearly rallied behind senior Ben VanderWal (34 points, 12 rebounds), a longtime AAU teammate of Hanley’s.

Gilhooley, Hanley and McCottry all finished with four fouls after splitting time guarding the 6-foot-7 Furman recruit.

“Ben’s a killer. He’s one of the best players I’ve played against. He did it all, but we had a great team effort,” Hanley said. 

On Feb. 12, RBHS lost to Oak Lawn 80-70 in overtime despite big outputs from Gilhooley (22 points) and Hanley (21 points), who each had eight rebounds. The Bulldogs entered the fourth quarter ahead 56-54 and missed last-second shots to win in regulation.