Too many times this year, the Lyons Township boys' basketball team has seen second-half leads disappear, and Friday night at the LaGrange Class AA Regional championship game, a fourth-quarter surge by Morton might have given the Lions feelings of déja vu.
LT seemed on the verge of losing a 12-point lead with only 3:16 left to play, but instead of reliving a troubled past, the Lions forged a new memory. In this one, they hit 5-of-6 free throws in the final minute of play to secure a 50-48 win and the team's first regional title since 2001.
"Survive and move on. That's all that matters," Lions coach Conte Stamas said. "They threw up some bank threes and made some tough shots. I was happy we made our free throws in the fourth quarter."
After dispatching Nazareth Academy 54-36 behind 21 points from senior Ben Mundt to advance to Friday's championship game, the Lions (21-6) trailed most of the first quarter against sixth-seeded Morton by as many as four points as Mustangs connected on three 3-point baskets in the opening minutes.
It was Adam Powers, in his first game back since being sidelined by a sprained ankle, who closed the frame with a traditional 3-point play that tied the game at 17. But it was Mundt that again carried LT, scoring nine of his game-high 19 points.
"The last game I stepped up in Powers' absence and the first quarter I just kept it rolling from the last game," Mundt said. "I kept taking open shots and they were going in."
While LT got a pair of 3-pointers from Todd Nyberg and another from Andrew Corcoran in the second quarter, the Lions defense found a way to limit Morton's John Stokes and Cedric Johnson. The pair, which would combine for 30 points, managed only a field goal in the second quarter as LT walked off the floor with a 26-23 halftime lead.
Morton would hit only 1-of-11 shots from the field in the third as Lions stretched the lead to 33-25 going into the fourth, and a pair of free throws by Mundt with 3:16 left in the game gave LT its biggest lead of the night at 43-31.
A put-back and a 3-pointer by Stokes, plus another 3-pointer from Johnson, brought the Mustangs to within 45-39 with 1:55 left. A minute later, a Lions turnover under the Morton basket gave the Mustangs a chance to come within 45-44, but a basket by Stokes was waived off because he was fouled before putting up the shot.
Johnson would miss a pair of free-throws that could have narrowed the margin to one, and from that point LT took over at its own free-throw line.
"I think we were a little nervous," said Corcoran, who hit 4-of-4 free throws in the final 17 seconds, "but we didn't let it get to us. In the past we'd let it get to us and teams would come back and take a lead. We learned from those games and held on for the win."
Morton would knock down two more from beyond the arc, including Johnson's fourth of the night with four seconds left that made the score 50-48, but LT was able to let the final seconds tick off the clock.
Powers, Corcoran and Nyberg each chipped in nine points and Powers also pulled down seven rebounds.
Mike Scavuzzo scored four points and finished with six boards.
"It's huge, especially coming off the way we lost conference," Mundt said. "We really wanted to come out and win our regional and we did. It was really important to us, especially for us seniors. It was our last game on this floor, so we had to go out and win."
Since the Lions' last regional title, they've made it to a regional championship game twice, losing last year 57-47 to Oak Park. The last time LT won a regional, the team also qualified for State.
The Lions will now face second-seeded Proviso East (25-3) tonight (Wednesday, March 9) in the first round of the Morton Sectional. Should they win, they'll take on top-seeded St. Joseph (27-1) or fourth-seeded Fenwick (20-6).