Senior Graham Smith was part of an incredible postseason run with the Lyons Township High School football team in the fall.
Now he’s gaining believers on the basketball court.
In the Lions’ final home game, Smith was among many seniors who came through big-time as the No. 5-seeded Lions defeated No. 3 Curie 49-46 in the IHSA Class 4A regional championship game on Feb. 24 at Lyons Township.
“It feels great. No one thought we were going to win this game but we’re back [at sectionals], baby, and we’re rolling,” said the Yale-bound Smith, the tight end on the Lions’ Class 8A state quarterfinal football team.
The Lions (26-5) now face No. 2 Hinsdale Central (30-3) in the Hinsdale Central Sectional semifinals on March 1 after losing both of their regular-season meetings. No. 1 Whitney Young (23-7) are set to play No. 4 Downers Grove North (27-3) in the other sectional semifinal on Feb. 28. The sectional finals are March 3.
Seniors Jackson Niego (15 points), Smith (12 points, 13 rebounds), Nik Polonowski (7 points, 8 rebounds), Carroll (7 points) and Carter Reid (6 points) led the Lions.
The only player in double figures for Curie (20-11) was senior Jeremy Harrington Jr. (27 points with 3 threes), who had 13 points in the first quarter.
The Lions trailed much of the game but after entering the fourth quarter down 34-32, Niego hit two free throws and Smith scored inside off a Reid pass for a 36-34 lead and the Lions never trailed again.
LTHS stayed ahead by hitting 10 of its first 13 free throws in the quarter. After Niego’s free throw gave the Lions their 49-46 lead with 32.6 seconds left, he later missed two in the double bonus with 14.1 seconds.
The Condors called a timeout with 10.4 seconds and went for a quick 2-pointer but as the driving shot missed, the rebound batted around in the lane and time expired.
“I had to make it close at the end,” said a grinning Niego. “It was a great win, a team win, as always. I felt like everyone did their part, handling the ball, handling pressure, sitting down on defense, a couple of last key possessions.”
Like their Senior Night Blackout game Feb. 17, the Lions retained their black uniforms and were fueled by an enthusiastic home crowd.
They also executed their game plan.
“Three things coming into the game – we had to handle the ball against pressure, we had to defend the drive and we had to rebound. We weren’t perfect with it. But I think we won those battles more than we lost them,” LTHS coach Tom Sloan said.
Smith embodied that toughness with 10 first-half rebounds, including two putback baskets to complement threes by Niego, Polonowski and Reid.
Before Niego’s final free throws, Smith blocked a shot left of the lane with Polonowski getting the rebound.
“We came out here knowing they were going to be a physical team,” Smith said. “Our goal was to not let them get offensive rebounds. Whoever controlled the boards was going to win the game.”
Niego (7 points), Carroll (5 points) and Smith (4 points) did most of the fourth-quarter scoring. Carroll hit a driving shot and two free throws with 1:56 left for a 46-42 lead followed by Harrington’s final three.
Last season, Carroll’s older brother Will hit the game-winning three in overtime to get the Lions past Curie in the sectional semifinals before losing to Whitney Young in the sectional final.
“Not as dramatic as a game-winning three but definitely the same outcome, which was awesome,” Carroll said.
The University of Illinois at Chicago Supersectional is March 6 against the winner of the St. Rita Sectional, where Kenwood and Brother Rice are the top two seeds.