BY CHAD DARE
Rend Lake freshmen Cortez Macklin and Jeril Taylor had faith in themselves and their teammates.
And when Taylor knocked down two free throws with 5 seconds left in overtime, their faith was rewarded.
The Warriors, who overcame a 23-point second-half deficit, were advancing into the NJCAA Division II National Tournament semifinals with an 85-83 overtime victory over the South Suburban Bulldogs.
“We were thinking it’s not over,’’ said Macklin as Rend Lake trailed 65-42 with 10 minutes, 2 seconds left in the quarterfinal contest. “We always think like that. It’s not the first time that we’ve been down like that.
“So, we just kept pushing and we always have faith in ourselves.’’
The Warriors (28-3) had a 7-0 run to pull within 16, and then they got into single digits on a 3-pointer from Taylor, but the big run came in the final 2:34 as Rend Lake scored the game’s final 10 points thanks in large part to five turnovers on five possessions by South Suburban.
“It took a lot,’’ Taylor said. “It took a lot of energy. It took a lot of hustle, a lot of effort from the bench and the five guys that were playing.
“We had to keep fighting and not give up. That’s what we did. We had to comeback and win the game.’’
And even when the Warriors tied the game on Macklin’s steal and layup, the Bulldogs (31-4) still had an opportunity to win the game in regulation.
South Suburban’s Michael Harris missed a shot from the right wing, but sophomore Henry Davis got the rebound and got fouled.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Davis missed both free throws with 3.1 seconds left and when Rend Lake’s Dawson Verhines had his 55-foot heave rattle out, the quarterfinal contest between the two Illinois teams was headed for overtime.
“I really feel for the South Suburban kids, they played better than us for 90 percent of the game,’’ Rend Lake coach Randy House said. “I feel really sorrowful for the boy that missed the free throws. There is no happiness in that for anyone.’’
This game had an all-too-familiar feeling for South Suburban coach John Pigatti.
“It happened again. It happened again,’’ Pigatti said. “We’ve been talking about this situation with Mike and Bryce all year. We talked about having big leads.
“We decided to just panic, try to dribble through presses. Once we got the press broke, we had guys that didn’t want to get set up. We were having anything we wanted in our offense, we were scoring on all of our players. But they didn’t want to listen. That has been the story of the year with this group.’’
In last year’s National Tournament, the Community College of Rhode Island overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to beat South Suburban in the semifinals.
“I was never was comfortable,’’ Pigatti said. “When we were up 21, I was never comfortable.’’
“Because of what happened last year,’’ he said. “They made a wide open 3, because we messed up on a switch, and they cut it to 18.
“I looked to my assistant coach, Mark Carpenter, and I said Rhode Island all over again.’’
And while it was similar in a bad way for South Suburban, it was also a familiar feeling for Rend Lake.
“We were down 17 at our place against Parkland with five minutes left and we came back to win,’’ Rend Lake coach Randy House said.
The Warriors defeated the Cobras 69-67 in that contest, and that success was in the minds of the players as well.
“That game gave us a lot of confidence that we could comeback,’’ said Macklin, who finished with 16 points.
South Suburban built another lead in the five-minute overtime as the Bulldogs led 83-79 with 3:13 left.
But that was the last time that South Suburban would score.
Rend Lake got a layup from Bronson Verhines, two free throws from Corey Ayala to set up Taylor for his heroics.
With just five seconds left in the overtime, Taylor sank a pair of free throws, giving the Warriors just their second lead of the game.
The other time that Rend Lake had the lead was at 2-0 when Macklin scored the game’s first points.
And what was Taylor thinking when he went to the line after South Suburban called the timeout, trying to ice the freshman from Louisville, Ky.
“The first thing was be calm, take your time, don’t let the pressure get to you, just block everyone out and do what you do,’’ Taylor said. “We practice free throws every day. I was told to take my time and knock them down.
“I knew my team had me and I had to have them.’’
South Suburban had one final shot, but Dawson Verhines blocked a 3-pointer from Stefan Beard.
Sophomore Bryce Walker, who had a game-high 25 points to go along with eight assists and seven rebounds, passed the ball to Beard on the final play.
“Bryce was supposed to take the ball on a slant cut, and dribble it up. Stefan Beard was not supposed to be in the corner,’’ Pigatti said. “We got the slant cut and Bryce looked like he had it. I don’t know why Bryce passed it, I would shoot it.’’
The Bulldogs built their 23-point lead behind the 1-2 scoring punch of Walker and Michael Harris.
Those two combined for 49 of South Suburban’s 83 points and they were a combined 10-of-24 from 3-point range.
“We executed. We didn’t panic and we didn’t rush,’’ said Pigatti of the game’s first 30 minutes.
Harris and Walker were 4-for-17 in the final 10 minutes of regulation and in the overtime period. In those first 30 minutes, they were 14-of-27 from the field.
“Harris is a great shooter and Walker can penetrate really well,’’ Macklin said. “Coach told us that we needed to put a lot more pressure on them and that’s what we did.’’
Rend Lake, the champions of Region 24, advance to Friday’s semifinal game against Owens Community College. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m.
While South Suburban will face Central Community College of Columbus in a 3 p.m. game this afternoon.