LT's Nik Polonowski (44) attempts a shot in a late game scramble under the Hinsdale basket on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, at Hinsdale Central. Ian McLeod

Senior Nik Polonowski and his Lyons Township High School boys basketball teammates were determined to finally beat Hinsdale Central in the IHSA Class 4A Hinsdale Central Sectional semifinal March 1. 

The Lions played arguably their best half all season for a 9-point advantage at halftime. 

“Stuff was flowing,” Polonowski said. “We were hitting shots. We were getting to the basket. We were dishing the ball really well, but on top of everything, we were having fun. When we play like that, collectively together, it’s a scary sight.” 

The Lions sustained the effort, but they couldn’t continue the offensive success. That ultimately led to their third loss to the Red Devils this season 46-40 in front of packed gym of roughly 3,300 that officially sold out three days earlier.

“I thought our effort was tremendous throughout the game. Unfortunately, in the second half, we made too many mistakes,” LTHS coach Tom Sloan said. “Hinsdale played very well, and they knocked down some tough shots, too. They got the offensive glass the second half [7 offensive rebounds] and that was really kind of a big factor.”  

Polonowski led the Lions (26-6) with 20 points, followed by seniors Graham Smith (9 points, 3 rebounds), Matt DeSimone (5 points), Jackson Niego (4 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists), Connor Carroll (4 rebounds, 3 assists) and senior Carter Reid and junior Brady Chambers (4 rebounds each).

Polonowski was among the Lions physically and emotionally spent afterwards, often guarding senior and Michigan baseball recruit Dan Oosterbaan (19 points, 7 rebounds), the Red Devils’ all-time leading scorer whose 13 second-half points fueled their comeback.

“I was pretty gassed. I didn’t get out of my bed much the next day. I was pretty sore,” Polonowski said. “I like to give it all I’ve got. If you’re not giving 100 percent, I feel like that’s almost disrespectful to the other guys and the coaches. Play hard, have fun is my mentality.”

Behind nine points from Polonowski and Smith, the Lions owned a 27-18 halftime advantage, but the game’s fortunes changed as the Red Devils (31-4) switched from man-to-man to a 1-3-1 zone defense.

The Lions scored just three points in the third quarter on 1-for-5 shooting with four turnovers on nine possessions. The quarter began with Oosterbaan scoring after rebounding his missed shot twice and ended with Chase Collignon’s buzzer beater for a 33-30 Hinsdale Central lead.

“We were completely prepared (for the 1-3-1 zone),” Sloan said. “We got a couple of good looks that we didn’t knock down and then we coughed it up a couple of times and that was right when they got it going.” 

The Lions didn’t get their second second-half field goal until Polonowski’s driving layup with 5:36 left, yet still only trailed 35-32. Polonowski made his three 3-pointers in the final 2:16, but Hinsdale Central held on by making 6 of 8 free throws.

“Nik’s a warrior, just like everyone in the locker room,” Sloan said. “There’s a tremendous chemistry with the group and Nik is one of the leaders. He was not going to go down without giving it his best shot.” 

Polonowski (Penn) and Niego (Illinois Wesleyan) will play college basketball. Smith will play football at Yale.

“We have been in the program since we were third grade. I’ve been doing kids camps with varsity guys and been around Coach Sloan for years,” Polonowski said. “I made lifelong best friends along the way. I’m so grateful basketball brought those guys into my life. I’m so grateful we had that atmosphere within practice, games, going out to eat after. I was just playing the spot I love with my best friends out there.”

The Lions lost half of their games to Hinsdale Central, including 49-41 on Jan. 20 in Hinsdale and 57-55 on Feb. 11 in LaGrange, and split their West Suburban Conference Silver games with Downers Grove North and Glenbard West. 

Hinsdale Central lost to Downers North 53-43 in the March 3 sectional final. The Trojans (32-3) defeated Kenwood 67-47 at the Illinois-Chicago Supersectional on March 6 for their 19th consecutive win and a state semifinal berth. 

The Lions beat higher-rated Curie for the second straight year 49-46 in the LT Regional final Feb. 24.

“I’ll put our league up against anybody,” Sloan said. “The kids just set us up for a really nice ride. I’ve been really blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them at practice every day.”