BY CHAD DARE
South Suburban coach John Pigatti is very open with his opinions.
After losing the fifth-place game to Monroe Community College 76-69 at the NJCAA Division II National Tournament, Pigatti showered the Tribunes with compliments.
“Monroe is the best basketball team here by the way,” Pigatti said. “You can put it in print, I don’t care what anyone says. They are the best basketball team here, period.
“They are the biggest. They are the strongest. They are the (most athletic). They are best basketball team, by far none. Monroe is the best basketball team here, period. I will say it over and over again, they should be playing tonight.”
And Monroe Community College (32-4) could have been playing for the National Championship if it wasn’t for the final few minutes of its quarterfinal contest against Moraine Valley. The Tribunes had their 12-point lead erased in the final five minutes of a 78-74 loss.
“We’ve had a really fun year and I thought we played good basketball here, except for one minute. And that’s way it goes sometimes,” Monroe coach Jerry Burns said. “It’s difficult now. Our guys are happy that they won.
“We’ve had numerous meetings with some of the guys and they keep replaying that over and over in their head. And it’s that what if. That’s what life is all about, you have to move on.”
Greg Williams scored 14 of his team-high 19 points in the second half for the Tribunes and his contribution was part of a 49-12 advantage for Monroe in bench scoring. Dallas Gary was also part of that with 16 points and Reuben Berry had 11.
“Anytime you get a ‘W’ like I’ve said numerous times out here is really enjoyable,” said Burns, who admitted that he considered getting out of coaching last season. “This team has been the least problematic team that I’ve had.”
The loss for South Suburban ends a remarkable run for guards Bryce Walker and Michael Harris.
The Bulldogs end this season at 32-5 with a sixth-place finish and a year ago, they were 33-4 and finished third in the NJCAA Division II National Tournament at the Mary Miller Complex on the campus of Danville Area Community College.
“They won a lot of games, should have won more,” Pigatti said. “ Great basketball teams and great players handle adversity and they can take it to another level. When you are a quality person, you can take it to another level. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to take these last two years to another level. They didn’t have a lot of help on our team. Bryce and Mike gave everything they could, you know what I mean. They couldn’t take the next step. They showed a lot of character today to play as hard as they could.”
Walker scored a game-high 30 points against Monroe, finishing with a tournament-high 101 points to go along with 15 assists in four games. For his efforts, the 5-foot-10 sophomore from East Chicago, Ind., won the Jack Cistriano Small Man Award for the second year in a row.
“I heard it has never been done before and I happy to do that,” said Walker, who also earned the honor last year after averaging 18.8 points and 3.0 assists per game. “It means everything to me. It lets me know that I was the best guard, regardless if its 6-feet or under. I felt like I was the best guard in the tournament and I received an award for it.”
Walker’s running mate, Michael Harris, was sidelined for much of Saturday’s game after hitting his head on the floor early in the first half. Harris finished with just nine points after scoring 64 in the Bulldogs first three tournament games.
“He was seeing about five baskets the rest of the game,” Pigatti said. “He had a slight concussion, but he wanted to play and try his hardest. He did. I told him to shoot for the basket in the middle.”
Joining Walker in double figures for South Suburban was Anthony Strickland with 12 off the Bulldogs bench.
Pigatti didn’t get a chance to see the ending as he received two technical fouls with 17.6 seconds remaining and South Suburban trailing 73-69.