BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — NORMAL — The thing that typically separates really good players from exceptional players is what happens in the postseason.
Players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are known for getting the job done when the games have meant the most.
On Tuesday night, Danville High senior forward Denzel Smith rose to the occasion in the IHSA Class 4A regional semifinal against Bradley-Bourbonnais.
Smith scored a game-high 33 points, including 22 in the second half, to lead the Vikings to an 63-49 upset victory over the top-seeded Boilermakers at Normal Community High School.
“I think this elevates his status and his legacy at Danville High,’’ said Danville coach Ted Houpt. “You do great things and you lead your team to victories in the postseason — that’s a whole another type of greatness and that’s what he has been doing for us.’’
In the Vikings two regional victories, including a 63-55 win over Normal West on Monday, Smith has scored 60 points, pulled down 18 rebounds, dished out four assists, recorded four steals and the senior is 16-of-16 at the free-throw line.
“Knocking down free throws and rebounding — that’s winning basketball,’’ Houpt said. “That’s the big reason why we are closing out victories here in the postseason.’’
And when the Vikings needed their star player to pick up his play on Tuesday night, Smith responded.
After a good first half with 11 points and seven rebounds, the 6-foot-7 forward didn’t miss a shot in the second half. He was 7-of-7 from the field and 7-of-7 at the free-throw line in the final two quarters.
“In the first half, I came out with a little negative energy,’’ Smith admitted. “At halftime, the coaches pulled me to the side, and told me that if I kept good positive energy that we would win. I took that challenge and make a positive out of it.
“It means a lot, especially as a senior going out. You want to send a message to people that Danville High School is about to start a good run.’’
And this run for the Vikings (11-16 overall) is extremely gratifying considering Danville was 5-21 a year ago and just two weeks ago, the Vikings were 6-15. Since a 30-point loss (79-49) to Decatur MacArthur on Feb. 13, they have won four of its last five with only a 76-74 loss at Bloomington on Feb. 21.
“I knew we could do this, but we just had to all buy in,’’ said Danville senior Jarhed Watson, who had 10 points and five rebounds in the win over the Boilermakers. “We just to play and do what we always knew we could do.
“We’ve been going harder and now, it’s do-or-die.’’
Houpt thought that “fulfilling might be overstating” what his Vikings have done this week, but considering that Danville has won two regional games in the same year for the first time since winning its last regional title in 2001, that phrase seems appropriate.
“It’s all about the kids persevering and staying with it,’’ Houpt said. “They have stayed with each other and stayed with the program. It feels really good to see them doing the right thing and the players are being rewarded.
“The best thing about these wins is that they didn’t just win. They have won with poise. They are knocking down free throws, taking care of the ball, rebounding — those are things that have caused us problems in the past. We have looked like a basketball team in the last six games and that’s fun.’’
Another key player in Danville’s two regional victories has been senior Kylen Butler. The 6-foot-4 point guard had 10 points and a game-high seven assists in Tuesday’s victory and that gives him 28 points and 11 assists in the regional tournament for the Vikings.
“That’s great,’’ Houpt said. “Denzel is putting up some big numbers, but Kylen is playing like a legitimate point guard. Earlier this season, I wasn’t sure if we had a true point guard, but I can say know that he looks like a true point guard. He is taking care of the ball against pressure and he is getting it to Denzel where he needs it to be a scorer.
“Kylen is also providing a sense of composure, and that’s what we want from a point guard. We’ve gotten it just in time. It’s been a tough year for him to adjust into that position, but it’s great to see him fulfill his potential.’’
At no point on Tuesday night did Danville look like it was in awe of Bradley-Bourbonnais, which was 18-5 heading into the contest and the regional’s top-seeded team.
“We’ve played plenty of No. 1-seeded teams over the past two years,’’ said Watson, referring to games against teams like Lincoln, Cahokia, Peoria Manual and Champaign Centennial this season.
But, probably no one outside of the Danville lockerroom thought the Vikings would be playing for a regional title on Friday night.
“No, most people didn’t think it was possible, especially tonight against the No. 1 seed,’’ Smith said. “But like I told my guys before the game, the No. 1 seed doesn’t mean anything when it comes tournament time — everyone is equal.’’
Danville will play Normal Community, a 63-46 winner over Bloomington, for the IHSA Class 4A regional title on Friday night. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. at Normal Community High School. Tickets are $4 and they are available at the door.
For Houpt, the two days to prepare for the Vikings first regional championship game since 2011 is a good time to regroup.
“I’m really tired, it’s emotionally draining to go back-to-back days and we also over here (in Normal) on Friday,’’ he said. “It feels good and it’s a new emotion that I welcome with open arms.’’
Colin Holderman was the leading scorer for the Boilermakers with 16 points, while Micah Bradford and Levester Harris added 13 and 12 in the losing cause.