NORMAL | The casual observer probably couldn't tell that Tyler Ulis's body wasn't 100 percent in Marian Catholic's supersectional game against Edwardsville on Tuesday night.
They hadn't seen him hobbling about on crutches for the previous week. They didn't see the pain on his face with every step — off the court — thanks to right-footed turf toe.
But Ulis knew. For the third straight game, the All-America senior knew it would be a different night for him, one where he couldn't just escape a defender and fly to the basket.
“I couldn’t explode,” Ulis said, leaning on crutches and ready to leave Redbird Arena for a new world. “I had to do my job, and I didn’t do enough tonight.”
Fans wouldn't have believed Ulis was injured against Bloom Township, when he poured in 40 points. Or in the sectional final against Homewood-Flossmoor, when he collected 25 points, with 10 points on as many attempts from the free-throw line in the final quarter.
Or, really, against the Tigers, when he was cutting to the basket and scored 23 points.
In the supersectional, the Spartans needed Ulis at 100 percent to knock off the foe that knocked them off on Illinois State’s Doug Collins Court the year before. Edwardsville, with four players in double figures, scored a 65-60 overtime victory over the Spartans.
More than a run to the Class 4A title ended with the defeat. An era closed.
Fifty-seven wins in the last two years, with seven losses. Eighty-five wins in the four-year tenures of the 10 seniors on the team. More memories that they can count.
Ulis is off to Kentucky, where he’ll have the opportunity to turn heads in the Southeastern Conference. T.J. Parham is off to West Point, where he’ll play any position asked and serve his country. Ki-Jana Crawford is off to a football career at St. Xavier. His only basketball from this point will probably be in pickup games. Senior starters John Oliver and Josh Cohn also depart.
“It’s a really tough night, but I’m extremely blessed to have had these 10 seniors,” coach Mike Taylor said. “We have to get past tonight, and you look at 29 and 28 wins over the last two years. They’ve accomplished so much and experienced so much, and are walking away great friends.
“The people coming in have to realize how hard these kids worked to get where they are.”
Ulis, after noting that Edwardsville’s victory was built on back-door cuts — the Spartans were victimized by them early and late — and free throws, turned philosophical.
“I’m going to miss these guys,” Ulis said. “I’m never going to get to play again with them. It’s K.J.‘s last basketball game ever. John and Josh will probably play, and T.J.‘s going to Army. These are like my brothers.”
Taylor returns next year with a rebuilding task of the first order.
He’ll start with Chris Austin and T.J. Smith, and go from there. But Tuesday night, after the Spartans shot 37.5 percent, he wanted and needed one last shot to fall, that one shot wasn’t there.
“It stinks getting this close,” Taylor said. “Two in a row (losses in the supersectional at Illinois State) for us. Wish we could play at Thornton or Bloom.”