Boys basketball: Jack Stanton’s 3 sparks Downers Grove North to regional title

Trojans beat Neuqua Valley 54-39 for 29th home win in a row

Downers Grove North’s Jake Riemer dunks the ball during the Class 4A Downers Grove North Regional final against Neuqua Valley on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

DOWNERS GROVE – Downers Grove North senior guard Jack Stanton clearly understands the drill by this point of his career.

One of the top shooters in the state, the Princeton recruit rarely is left open beyond the arc, especially against high-level opponents in the playoffs.

Standing about two feet beyond the 3-point line on the wing near Downers Grove North’s bench early in the third quarter Feb. 23, Stanton glanced around for a quick second before noticing something odd. He was wide open.

All game long, Neuqua Valley centered its game plan on stopping Stanton, sending two defenders his way after he crossed half court to force him to pass the ball.

The plan worked to near perfection for two-plus quarters, with Stanton missing five of his six first-half shots and having just four points.

Then, in a flash, it changed.

After a teammate stole the ball on Downers Grove North’s side of the court, Stanton rose up and swished a game-turning 3-pointer to spark the second-seeded Trojans to a 54-39 victory over sixth-seeded Neuqua Valley in the Class 4A Downers Grove North Regional championship game.

“I was surprised because it was a different look than I had all game,” Stanton said. “I’m like, ‘I might as well pull up. I’m not going to get more open.’ ”

The Trojans advanced to battle third-seeded Waubonsie Valley in an East Aurora Sectional semifinal Wednesday.

Stanton’s second-half resurgence was just one of the big pieces to the puzzle that unlocked the Trojans’ second straight regional title. Stanton drilled all four of his second-half shots to finish with 15 points.

Teammate Alex Miller helped the Trojans by hitting all three of his 3-pointers in the first half to end with 11 points. Senior center Jake Riemer gobbled up the boards to rack up 11 points and eight rebounds and senior guard Owen Thulin’s penetration and shooting – three 3s for 11 points – and tough defense uplifted the Trojans during key moments. The team effort was evident in many areas, including unsung junior forward Aidan Akkawi scoring four points and pulling down four key rebounds.

Miller’s hot shooting in the first half helped the Trojans build a 20-15 halftime lead.

“My teammates found me open,” Miller said. “They are great downhill drivers. Their defense had to pick their poison and my teammates were able to find me for those 3s. I had a feeling Jack was going to knock down his shots eventually.”

The Trojans (29-4) captured their 29th straight victory at home and moved another step closer to a return trip to the state tournament.

“We had a tough regional last year and that sparked our run,” Stanton said. “I think this one against a very talented and smart team like Neuqua Valley was special, especially in a defensive win by allowing just 39 points.”

The Wildcats fell into a 31-15 hole with just under three minutes left in the third quarter but recovered to trim the deficit to 34-31 before the Trojans ripped off a 20-8 run to close out the game.

Forward Joe Balgro led the Wildcats (23-10) with 12 points. Luke Kinkade, the all-time leading scorer in program history, dropped in 11 points.

“We tried to come back and cut it close, but they kept making plays and that’s what great teams do,” Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said. “We made some bad turnovers. That hurt, especially to start the third quarter. It was off to the races for them. We can play better than that. This was a phenomenal group, one of the nicest groups we’ve coached.”

The third quarter was the difference in the game. The Trojans, who finished fourth at state in Class 4A last season, reeled off an 11-0 run to open the half. Reimer canned a top of the key 3-pointer, which was followed by a gliding layup by Stanton and then Stanton’s game-turning wide-open 3. Thulin drilled a 3-pointer to close out the run for a 31-15 lead.

“It was fun,” Thulin said. “I hit a few 3s in our last game. Jack hit me today when I was open. We knew this game was big. Neuqua Valley is really well coached and has a lot of great players.”

Downers Grove North coach Jim Thomas credited his team for surviving a few runs by the Wildcats to pull out the regional title win.

“Kinkade and Jack are so talented with the ball in their hands, but also know how to get others involved,” Thomas said. “Both game plans were trying to keep those two guys at bay. For a little bit of time, both teams did, but they both got going in their own little spurts. This win was huge. The 29th win was a big deal to our seniors, just to get out of here unscathed with a bunch of home wins in a row.”

Bob Narang

Bob Narang is a contributing sports reporter to Shaw Local News Network