TINLEY PARK | Marian Catholic point guard Tyler Ulis played on a tender ankle in Wednesday night's Class 4A Andrew Regional semifinal game against Lockport Township, and he was still the best player on the court.
The sophomore fought through the discomfort of a recently healed left ankle sprain to post 21 points, which led the seventh-seeded Spartans to a 43-33 victory over the Porters at Andrew High School. The Spartans (15-12) will face host Andrew for the regional championship at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night.
Ulis put the Spartans ahead with a half-court shot just before the second-quarter buzzer, then helped keep the Spartans ahead with a mixture of drives and perimeter shots, as well as five bonus situation free throws in the final two minutes of the contest.
Wednesday's playoff game was Ulis' comeback after missing three games due to the sprain.
"I shoot a lot of free throws," Ulis said of his play down the stretch against the Porters. "Even when I was injured, I could still shoot free throws in the gym while they practiced. So it came in handy."
The Porters (16-12) controlled the tempo of the defensive battle for three quarters, but Spartans coach Mike Taylor switched his team's defense to a man-to-man in the fourth quarter, which helped grind the Porters' offense down to a pace that did not allow them to stay with the Spartans.
Ahead 31-24 going into the fourth quarter, Taylor also directed his team to surrender to the slower pace of the game and patiently wait for cracks in the Porters' zone or take their points from the foul line.
"I thought we were just too passive, going into that last quarter," Taylor said of the shift in strategy. "We were starting to stand around a bit. I thought for us to win, we'd have to increase the pressure and get some easier buckets than what we were getting."
The strategy paid off. Ulis hit Erik Crittendon with a lob pass for a basket midway through the fourth quarter to give the Spartans a 34-29 lead. Josua Cohn kept the lead at five points for the Spartans with a putback score with two minutes to play, then Ulis really went to work.
With little choice available and the clock ticking away, the Porters put Ulis on the line four times in the final two minutes. Ulis made 5-of-7 those free throws, while the Porters missed four shots and committed two turnovers in the final two minutes to erase the hope for a comeback.
"(The Spartans) played defense, but we've seen that kind of defense before," Porters coach Larry Johnson said. "I think they just did a much better job of getting the ball where it needed to be, and then putting the ball in the basket. We eventually would get the ball where it needed to be, but we just didn't make enough shots."
The Spartans Ki-Jana Crawford and Crittendon each added six points toward Wednesday's victory, while the Porters were led by Kyle Ward, who scored 12 points.