BY AARON PATTERSON
A Chinese proverb states: “The harder you fall, the higher you bounce.”
It probably wasn’t used in South Suburban College coach John Pigatti’s pep talk following possibly one of the biggest letdowns of the Bulldogs’ season, but the saying held true.
Pigatti is known to be animated and descriptive at times, but his analyses are typically more colorful. He was, perhaps, as colorful as ever when his Bulldogs gave up a 23-point lead to Rend Lake on Wednesday en route to an overtime loss that otherwise would have sent South Suburban to the NJCAA Division II national tournament semifinals.
While he wasn’t reciting proverbs, Pigatti did guarantee his team it could eat at a Chinese buffet if it bounced back from Wednesday’s heartbreaking overtime loss.
Not only did the Bulldogs bounce back, they finished on Thursday what they couldn’t a day earlier by defeating the Central Community College Raiders 75-47.
“Coach just told us that he knew we blew the lead,” South Suburban sophomore guard Michael Harris said. “It was the same thing that happened last year. He just said that if we had any type of character, any type of heart, we wouldn’t let our season end losing two games in a row. We haven’t lost two games back-to-back all year. We couldn’t go out (like that) no matter how bad we were hurting yesterday after the loss when we had the big lead. We just wanted to come out with intensity from the jump.”
The Bulldogs did just that. There were no emotional letdowns, and less than two minutes into the contest South Suburban led 4-0 and had already forced Central into three turnovers.
Harris scored 11 of South Suburban’s first 17 points as it build a 13-point lead by the 12-minute, 56-second mark of the first half. He put up 17 of his game-high 22 points in the first half, and paved the way to the Bulldogs’ 32nd win of the season.
Sophomore forward Bryce Walker finished the game with 18 points and three assists, and the duo knew any chance of a win depended on their intensity.
“Those two are good enough to win a national championship,” Pigatti said. “I pretty much talked to those two about how they come out is going to determine our team and what we want to do. We used the Chinese buffet as part of it, too, so we’ll go eat there.”
The Bulldogs (32-4) never trailed in the game and led by as many as 25 in the first half. Confidence was high, and there should have been little doubt they would advance to Saturday’s fifth-place game. A Chinese dinner was inevitable.
No matter how much they tried to erase the memory of Wednesday’s setback, flashbacks were still hard to avoid.
“It had to be in the back of some of our minds,” Harris said. “I just knew that if we came out and played the same type of game — we knew our mistake of why we gave up the big lead. I feel like it was in the back of people’s minds, but we weren’t going to let it happen two days in a row. We couldn’t.”
The closest the Raiders got in the second half was 24 points, and with 5:13 to go, the Bulldogs held their largest advantage at 73-43.
Central CC’s James Spencer led the Raiders with 14 points, and Tyron Criswell finished with nine.
South Suburban will next play Saturday at 2 p.m. against an opponent yet to be determined. Central CC, however, watched its season end. The experience of simply being at the national tournament left second-year coach Marty Levinson hopeful for the future.
“We kept on fighting as long as we could,” Levinson said. “The way I look at it, we’re two days short, and you always want to get to that Saturday. That’s going to be my goal every year, whether it’s in that championship game here, or it’s one of those place games. I do want to get to that Saturday every year. I’m just disappointed that our season is done a little short, but how enjoyable the kids have been to be around and see what they’ve grown to, I’m very proud of them.
“Obviously building a program is going to take time, and that’s the level of program that I hope to get to,” he added, speaking of the nation’s perennial powers. “That’s why I was excited going in because I knew the implications of the level of the program that (Pigatti’s) had just by looking at the rankings the last two years. He’s there every year. I’m really excited about the potential of my team.”