CHAMPAIGN – Brock Harding and Brayden Fagbemi could not have entered this season with more dissimilar profiles.
Their off-court style couldn’t be more different, too.
Harding, one half of Moline’s dynamic senior tandem committed to Iowa, was handed the keys to the Maroons’ car as a freshman. He’s the all-time leading scorer in Moline basketball history and fourth in Western Big Six Conference history with close to 2,000 career points. He was on everyone’s radar before this year.
Fagbemi, on the other hand, flew well under the surface.
Benet’s 6-foot senior received modest minutes as a junior behind an all-conference point guard. He committed to Division III Johns Hopkins before this season. That looks like a recruiting steal now. Fagbemi emerged as one of the state’s hidden gems this year. He made Benet go and embraced the team’s underdog mindset.
On the state’s biggest stage, both point guards sparkled.
But Harding and Moline shined longest and brightest. Harding scored 17 of his game-high 28 points in the first half. The Maroons pulled away after halftime to beat Benet 59-42 in the Class 4A final at the State Farm Center for their first state championship.
“We didn’t want to come here just to come here,” Harding said. “That starts with the point guard on every team. I think I did a great job of getting going early, kind of relaxing everybody. This whole thing feels kind of surreal right now.”
Harding’s lob to fellow Iowa recruit Owen Freeman on a fast break, and a spectacular reverse layup, highlighted Moline’s 10-0 run in the third quarter to gain separation. Benet, trailing 32-25 at halftime, went six minutes without a score as Moline surged ahead 44-28.
Moline (35-3), for the second consecutive night, held a team to five third-quarter points. Benet shot just 3 for 12 from the 3-point line.
“Our defense won us the game,” Harding said. “Benet likes to shoot a lot of 3s. They didn’t make a lot of them.”
Harding, like he did in the state semifinal, stepped on the gas early in the championship game. He hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter and scored 11 of Moline’s 15 points in the second quarter. The senior guard did it with plenty of bounce and swagger.
That swagger continued in the postgame news conference. Every Moline player came out wearing state championship mesh caps, Harding’s version cocked to the side.
“I scored early and that kind of opened things up for other guys,” said Harding, who shot 7 for 11 and had three assists. “The guys got me the ball in spots where I like it. They set great screens.”
Fagbemi, at least for a half, was a perfect foil.
He scored eight of his 12 points in the first quarter. His step-back 3-pointer as time expired in the first quarter had Benet within 17-15. Fagbemi later scored on a backdoor layup that had Benet within 27-25 just before halftime.
But that’s as close as Benet got the rest of the way.
Fagbemi scored all 12 of his points in the first half, fouling out with 6:02 left. He took just three shots in the second half.
“I was just taking what the defense gives me,” Fagbemi said. “I have great players around me and they trust me, and coaches trust me. I was just playing off my teammates.”
Benet had come into the contest winners of 19 consecutive games. It did so on the strength of unselfishness and balance. But the Redwings were handicapped in their biggest game.
Leading scorer Brady Kunka, who sprained his ankle in the first quarter of the state semifinal, dressed and participated in the layup line, wearing a wrap on his right ankle. Kunka did get in briefly late in the fourth quarter.
Dartmouth recruit Niko Abusara, who was spectacular with a near triple-double in the state semifinal win, struggled against Moline’s length defensively. Several times Abusara had to adjust his shot around the 6-foot-10 Freeman. Abusara finished with 10 points on 5 for 18 shooting.
“He’s a good player, going to Iowa, he blocks shots, he’s a versatile player,” Abusara said. “All credit to him. He’s probably one of the best players I’ve ever played against.”
Freeman had six points, nine rebounds and one block for Moline (35-3), but he seemed to alter several shots and also altered Abusara’s path to the basket.
“He [Abusara] is a great player. I knew he was going to come out and attack the rim,” Freeman said. “I got in foul trouble so I just had to wall up and stay strong.”
Andy Nash scored 12 points for Benet (35-2), which settled for its third second-place finish in the past decade. The Redwings also lost the 2014 and 2016 finals.
“I thank these kids. They gave us an unbelievable season,” Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said. “I’m not sure what the expectations were going into the year but they easily surpassed them. It’s a real credit to all the guys in the locker room. They’re hurting right now, but they lost to a great team.”
With Moline’s win, coupled with Metamora’s overtime win over Simeon in the Class 3A final, it marked just the second time since the IHSA expanded to four classes that the two largest classes were won by a school outside the Chicago area.