Over the eight seasons coach Glenn Olson has been in charge of Niles North, the Vikings have won two conference titles, three regional titles and a sectional championship, but the Wheeling Hardwood Classic Championships has always eluded Niles North.
It may have taken four extra minutes, but third ranked Niles North finally took home the hardware from Wheeling with a 72-65 overtime victory over Libertyville.
Niles North was led by Jamal Stephenson with 23 points who made his return to the lineup for the first time this on Friday against Prospect.
In his two games, Stephenson has played a vital role for the Vikings, amassing 44 points while giving the Vikings a consistant outside shooting presence they desperately need.
“It’s great to be back,” said Stephenson. “To compete with my teammates and the guys who missed me, it’s great to be back. My teammates have been telling me to score, but honestly, I just want to win.”
Libertyville had a sound strategy right from the beginning of the game. Make Niles North beat them from the outside.
The Wildcats sat back in a 3-2 zone for nearly all of the game and stayed right with Niles North through the first quarter by slowing the game down and rebounding at a tremendous clip to keep within one point.
Unfortunately for Libertyville, Niles North found their legs in the second quarter and started to do what they do best, run.
Niles North were able to turn the Wildcats over and get out on the break for easy transition points. That combined with red hot three point shooting from Stephenson gave the Vikings an 11 point lead at halftime.
Niles North head coach Glenn Olson said: “It’s really great to have Jamal back. It’s good news, but it takes him some time and it changes up rotations, there’s stuff we need to figure out but it’s 100% great to have him back.”
Niles North continued to play well for the early portion of the third quarter, but Libertyville slowly started to creep their way back. Josh Steinhaus found his shooting touch to cut the deficit down to three points, but a quick 8-0 run by the Vikings seemed to erase any chance of an upset.
The fourth quarter saw Niles North maintain a nine point lead until there were two minutes left in the contest, thanks in large to a scoring surge from Damaria Franklin (17 points).
With Libertyville struggling to stop Niles North, and Drew Peterson (18 points) fouling out with a minute remaining, it looked as though Niles North’s six point lead would be more than enough to hold off Libertyville.
However, the Wildcats started to get some important stops on the defensive end and Niles North suffered from some unlucky bounces.
“I actually thought we played a really solid game today even though it was a little disappointing down the stretch,” said Olson.
“It was one of those things where it was missed free throws and dropped passes. It was weird, you can’t really fault our kids we just made mistakes. But credit to Libertyville because they did a tremendous job as well down the stretch.”
With less than 30 seconds remaining in the game and still down five points, Steinhaus (16 points) willed his team back with a clutch three and ice cold free throws with four second left on to clock to erase the deficit and send the game into overtime.
“I have had Josh Steinhaus as a player every year I’ve been here and every year he has shown extreme growth,” said Libertyville head coach Brian Zyrkowski. “He controls the game very well and he understands when he needs to take the game over. I know he missed that one free throw in overtime, but if theres anyone you want on the line at the end of the game besides Drew Peterson, it’s him.”
The overtime session went back and forth until an unfriendly rim denied Steinhuas of a layup and an free throw. Niles North took advantage of the opening and would ice the game down the stretch with free throws of their own, and a Stephenson dunk to give the Vikings 72-65 win.
Despite the loss, Libertyville has shown great strides since their disappointing result in the St. Viator Thanksgiving tournament. Not only did the Wildcats take Niles North to overtime, but they have an impressive resume with two wins over Waukegan, and a win over Conant.
“That tournament prepared us for the rest of the season and we learned a lot about ourselves,” said Zyrkowski. “This team has worked so hard and proven they will never quit even against the best and Niles North is one of the best. We said on any given night anything can happen with our attitude and I am so proud of our guys and our effort tonight.”
Both teams will have some much deserved time off before resuming play. Libertyville has a non-conference game against Carmel on January 3, with Niles North taking on New Trier on January 9.