Of late, the defense played by the Lyons Township boys' basketball team has resembled the token object of a magic trick: first you see it, then you don't.
That's the problem plaguing the Lions as they gear-up to open their Class AA Regional at home Tuesday against 11th-seeded Nazareth Academy, beginning at 7:30 p.m. LT, entering as the third seed in the Morton Sectional, will try to conjure more consistent stopping power.
"It's definitely been a concern lately," Lions coach Conte Stamas said. "I've told the kids it's on them. We've preached all year the importance of defending and rebounding. When we defend well, we do well."
LT's most recent lapse came Friday night, when West Suburban (Silver) Conference foe York (14-11, 4-7) walked away with a 59-58 victory by scoring the go-ahead put-back basket with two seconds left on the clock. The Lions had led by as many as seven points in the second half.
Stamas says the team's goal going into every game is to hold the opposition to less than 42-percent shooting from 2-point rage, and below 32 percent from 3-point range. In five February games, the Lions have only managed to do it once: In Saturday's 65-42 win against Willowbrook (6-17), LT held the Warriors to 32 and 19 percent, respectively.
"I can't make it any plainer," Stamas said. "Now they have to respond. That has to be our vehicle to success, because if we don't defend, we won't advance far."
While Stamas is looking for four quarters of committed defense, the Lions aren't about to change the approach that's delivered a 19-5 record. Nor should they with the weapons in their arsenal.
Adam Powers, LT's 6-foot-8 center, is possibly the best post player in the Morton Sectional. He's averaging close to 16 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Guards Todd Nyberg (9.3 ppg/3 rpg), Mike Scavuzzo (10 ppg/3.2 rpg) and Ben Mundt (9.6 ppg/3 rpg) all share the scoring load and forward Brian Wohlberg (2.3 ppg/2.5 rpg) provides help in the post.
The Lions also have Andrew Corcoran (5.9 ppg) for offensive sparks off the bench, while Scott Liska (2.3 ppg/2.8 rpg) is capable of lifting LT defensively while spelling Powers.
"They're the No. 3 seed in the regional for a reason," Nazareth Academy coach Gene Heidkamp said. "They're an excellent team with an excellent big player, and a lot of well-skilled perimeter players that can shoot the ball well."
The Roadrunners have a lineup built around a pair of senior guards: Steve Petrak, who is averaging 15 points per game, and Pete Zavagnin, who averages 14.5.
Both have the ability to penetrate and score, but Nazareth Academy's post players won't measure up to Powers. Heidkamp is hoping for a low-scoring affair.
"We have to play solid defense," Heidkamp said. "If we let them put up points in the 60s, we can't beat them. We can't trade baskets with their firepower."
LT would face the winner of the March 2 game between ninth-seeded Riverside-Brookfield (15-8) and sixth-seeded Morton (15-9). The Lions have beaten both teams this year: Morton by only one point back in early January, and RB by 12 earlier this month.
"Either game will be tough," Stamas said. "But there aren't any secrets. It comes down to who executes, defends, makes free throws and can do the fundamental things. With one-game elimination, you can't look at anyone's record or what they've done during the season. You come ready to play or you get bitten."
The Lions play their final regular-season game at home Friday against Downers Grove North (9-16, 5-6), and their conference fate hinges on the outcome. LT is tied atop the standings with Oak Park (15-9, 8-3) with the Huskies also closing the conference season Friday night. The Lions and Huskies split the season series.
An LT win would ensure a share of the title, and coupled with an Oak Park loss the Lions would win the title outright.
The two teams would meet a third time should both advance to the sectional final on March 11. Oak Park is the eighth seed in the sectional and would have to get past top-seeded St. Joseph (24-1) in the Argo Regional.
Proviso East (22-3) is the team the Lions are most likely to see should they advance to sectionals.