CHICAGO HEIGHTS | Just pulling into the parking lot at Marian Catholic on Wednesday night was indication enough that this would be something more than a typical November basketball game.
Hundreds of fans lined up at the doors hoping to get into sold out Casey Court. An ESPN trucks took up a quarter of the main parking lot. It looked more like something from Mid-March than late November.
That was the scene as Times No. 1 Marion Catholic, led by Kentucky-bound Tyler Ulis, and Times No. 5 Homewood-Flossmoor prepared to battle it out for a spot in the Championship game of the Chicago Heights Classic Tournament.
The game lived up to the billing and Ulis didn’t disappoint in front of a national television audience, scoring a game-high 24 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 5 assists to lead the Spartans to a 69–66 victory and a spot in the final.
“You can’t ask for more on November 28,” Homewood-Flossmoor coach James McLaughlin said. “It’s what we call a tell game; it tells you what you can and can’t do and what you need to work on. This kind of atmosphere is a great situation to find out where we’re at.”
The game had all the drama of a Super Sectional matchup as two teams loaded with talent and with high expectations battled until the last second when Homewood Flossmoor’s Dorian McCraney’s three-point attempt that would have sent the game into overtime fell just short with a second left on the clock.
But this is what holiday tournaments are all about.
They’re a chance to face tough competition early in the season and see what your team is made of, and to get them a feel for playing in a high pressure situation. It's a chance for some early seasoning to make sure they are ready for the big stage when playoffs roll around.
“We have a young team so this was a great learning situation,” McLaughlin said. “Our guys are still learning how to play together but this group hates to lose. Tonight was about getting after it and getting better, hopefully we’ll get another crack at them in March.”
For the players it’s a chance to make a statement and get themselves ready for bigger games in the later stages of state playoffs.
“There’s a lot of pressure, one of our goals coming into the season was to win the Chicago Heights Classic,” Marian Catholic Senior Terrone Parham said. “Games like this help get us ready for tough games down the road. We have great expectations this season and this helps prepare you for Sectionals and Super Sectionals.”
If Wednesday night was any indication both teams look ready to make a deep run this spring, after building a 16-point lead in the third quarter Marian Catholic had to hold on tight as the Vikings stormed back in the game’s final three minutes.
“We struggled in the playoffs last year against teams with a lot of length,” Marian Catholic coach Mike Taylor said. “We put together a schedule like this to get us there; we play a lot of teams that are long here. This is something we can look back on and build on as we go forward.”