ELMHURST – Not many 6-foot-4 guards can say they are overlooked, but Glenbard West senior Paxton Warden fits that description.
He is the shortest player in a starting lineup that has four players 6-6 or taller, including Gonzaga-bound 6-11 center Braden Huff.
While it is hard to stand out in that forest of redwoods, Warden did so on Wednesday. He scored 15 of his team-high 19 points in the second half to lead the top-ranked Hilltoppers to a 69-46 victory over Leo in the quarterfinals of York’s Jack Tosh Holiday Classic.
Glenbard West (12-0) will play Rolling Meadows in the semifinals at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
“He is a huge spark for us,” Huff said of Warden. “I think he’s a very under-the-radar player.
“We know what he can do, obviously, after playing with him for so long, and both offensively and defensively he just brings so much to this team. He’s able to score and then lock up as well.”
Warden did both against Leo (6-2), which led by as many as five points in the first quarter and trailed the Hilltoppers just 26-23 at halftime. He began the third quarter by draining the second of his three 3-pointers, then sank a pull-up jumper in the lane on the next possession.
That ignited a 24-2 run that blew the game open.
The early trey was reminiscent of how Warden started the first half, taking a pass from Huff and knocking down a 3-pointer on the game’s opening possession. That got his confidence flowing.
“For sure, confidence is definitely key,” Warden said. “My teammates were getting everyone open.
“Everyone was hitting the extra passes and getting others open rather than being selfish and trying to get their own. We’re just trying to get everyone better, not just one person.”
While Glenbard West coach Jason Opoka did make some adjustments to both his offense and defensive strategy at halftime, Warden’s offensive outburst wasn’t by design.
“The great thing about this team is we have so many weapons that whoever gets that shot, we feel confident that they can go ahead and knock it down,” Huff said. “So he happened to get those shots, which played in our favor, and he knocked them down.”
Warden, who also had four assists, three rebounds and two steals, made 4-of-7 shots after intermission and went 5 for 5 from the line. He scored five straight points, including two free throws with 5:17 left in the fourth quarter, to give the Hilltoppers their largest lead at 61-32.
“It’s just an attribute to what he’s done in the offseason and the weight room,” Opoka said. “He’s a high-character guy who all he wants to do is win.
“He can play any position for us. He right now plays the wing for us just because we have five guys that can dribble, pass and shoot. So we’re super excited for him.”
Warden is starting to draw attention from college coaches. St. Xavier recruiters talked to him after Wednesday’s game, but he’s not focusing on college yet.
“I feel like the schools will come to me, so I’m not really worried about that whole school situation,” Warden said. “I feel like my role is getting others open, playmaking and facilitation for others to get open shots.”
Warden and his teammates do a great job of setting one another up. Their crisp ball movement and sharp shooting, which including a 12-for-23 performance in the second half, wore down Leo’s resistance.
Cameron Cleveland scored a game-high 22 points for Leo, but the Hilltoppers were much more balanced.
Bobby Durkin had 14 points, six rebounds and four assists, while Huff chipped in 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two blocks and Ryan Renfro added nine points. Caden Pierce contributed five points, nine rebounds and three steals.
“When they played together in the feeder program, they learned how to dribble, pass and shoot and they prioritized team basketball,” Opoka said. “You can definitely see that they trust each other and they’re unselfish.”