2A boys basketball: Princeton makes it back to sectional finals, beats Rockford Christian

Noah LaPorte leads Tigers with 28 points, scores 1,000th career point

Princeton's Noah LaPorte drives against Rockford Christian in Tuesday's Class 2A regional semifinal at Mendota. The TIgers won 69-66 to advance to Friday's championship game.

MENDOTA – When the Princeton Tigers walked off the floor after losing to Rockridge in last year’s sectional finals, then-junior Jimmy Starkey hugged coach Jason Smith and told him they were going to get him back there.

On Tuesday night, they did.

The Tigers held on for a 69-66 win over Rockford Christian in a Class 2A Mendota Sectional semifinal that went down to the last shot. The win sends the Tigers (17-15) back to the sectional championship, awaiting the winner of Wednesday’s Byron (27-2) vs. Riverdale (22-8) semifinal in Friday’s championship game at 7 p.m.

“The kids showed heart, determination, grit, physicality. I can’t be more proud [of] a group of kids,” Smith said. “Nobody thought we could make it this far. As Jimmy Starkey said last year when he grabbed me and we were bawling, ‘We’ll get you back here next year, Coach.’ And guess what? We’re back in the sectional championship again.”

“Nobody thought we’d be back after losing those seniors, and here we are,” Princeton junior Noah LaPorte said. “And we got those fans coming out to support us every single day.”

Princeton led throughout – by 10 points at the half (36-26) and as many as 16 midway through the third quarter on a 7-0 run on a drive and a 3-pointer by Jordan Reinhardt around a putback by LaPorte to make it 48-32.

The Royal Lions stormed back to draw within 52-47 on a 3-pointer by Elijah Daugherty at the third-quarter buzzer. Rockford Christian continued its surge into the fourth quarter, going on an 11-4 run to draw even at 60 on another 3 by Daugherty with three minutes remaining.

Were the Tigers getting nervous?

“Nah, we’ve been in games like this all season. I could tell they were a little more shellshocked than we were,” LaPorte said.

Princeton's Daniel Sousa launches a second-half 3-pointer in Tuesday's Class 2A regional semifinal at Mendota. The TIgers beat Rockford Christian 69-66 to advance to Friday's championship game.

LaPorte and Sousa each scored twice to push the Tigers back to a 68-64 edge. Daugherty scored for the Royal Lions to make it a two-point game with 34.9 seconds left. Korte Lawson made 1 of 2 free throws with 20.9 seconds left to put the Tigers up 69-66. The Tigers had committed only one foul and used three more to thwart the Royal Lions’ 3-point attempts.

Christian Cummings, who led the Royal Lions with 20 points, got a good look before the buzzer, but his shot didn’t fall, and the Tigers survived for another day.

“We were going for steals, but that’s all right,” LaPorte said. “Got the boards and finished them off.”

“We had [fouls to give] in our hip pocket, and the kids really did a nice job with that,” Smith said. “It was a little too close for comfort, but we’ll take the win.”

The Tigers had too much firepower on the inside for the Royal Lions, with LaPorte (28) and Daniel Sousa (21) teaming up for 49 points. LaPorte also grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds to go with five assists, a block and two dunks.

“Everybody was talking how good a 3-point shooting team they were and how were we going to guard them. My response to them: How are they going to guard us? It’s a two-way street,” Smith said. “The key was we couldn’t let them make a lot of 3s. I thought we did a good job of that, and hats off to our guys defending around the perimeter.”

LaPorte enjoys playing with his partner in crime.

“Dan’s just a beast on the boards, and he can shoot. Nobody thinks he can shoot. They let him shoot out there, and that’s a mistake,” he said.

LaPorte hit a milestone with his 1,000th career point in the second quarter.

“When I hit it, it was amazing. I didn’t know how close it was. I’m just going out there to play,” he said. “It’s not about the points. I’m out here to win.”

“He’s such a humble kid,” Smith said. “People were asking him how close he was to 1,000 points. He said, ‘I don’t care. I just want to win.’ That’s a tribute to him and his personality and how humble he is. [Sousa] is the same way.”

The Tigers took a 21-15 lead at the end of the first quarter on a late 3-pointer by Reinhardt.

They opened a 10-point lead in the second quarter with an 8-0 run, capped by Sousa making a lob pass to LaPorte, scoring on a pick and roll with LaPorte and on a drive and dish by LaPorte to go up 29-19 with about four minutes left in the first half.

LaPorte scored his 1,000-point basket and followed a 3-pointer by Sousa with a tip-in at the buzzer to give the Tigers a 36-26 lead at the half.

Smith said the Tigers will be ready for whatever challenge comes their way Friday night as they seek Princeton’s first sectional championship since 2009.

“Postseason basketball, anything can happen,” Smith said. “The fight and determination of these guys is second to none. I really appreciate their effort, especially the last three games.”

Reinhardt chipped in 10 points for the Tigers, while Daugherty finished with 17 points for the Royal Lions.

Princeton's Noah LaPorte drives for a first-half basket against Rockford Christian in Tuesday's Class 2A regional semifinal at Mendota. The Tigers won 69-66 to advance to Friday's championship game.