CHAMPAIGN – Paxton Warden turned around in the final minutes, cast a glance at Glenbard West’s four other senior starters and waved his arms in celebration.
The journey is complete.
A goal whose seeds were planted seven years ago while the boys were in grade school came to fruition March 12. Glenbard West finished a magical season in the same manner it has done all along – in dominant fashion.
Glenbard West, No. 1 all season, led wire-to-wire in beating Young, 56-34, to win the Class 4A state championship at State Farm Center in Champaign.
It is Glenbard West’s first state basketball title.
“People have been talking about it for a long time, but we’ve been dreaming about it even longer, since we were in elementary school and middle school,” Glenbard West senior and Princeton commit Caden Pierce said. “That’s when it started. To do it, with these seniors, it’s a dream come true.”
The margin was Glenbard West’s closest in seven playoff games, and the Hilltoppers’ 30th win by greater than 20 points. They went undefeated against Illinois opponents, their only loss on a buzzer-beater to Bronny James and Sierra Canyon at Wintrust Arena.
The win cements Glenbard West (37-1), until this year known more for football, as one of Illinois basketball’s greatest champions.
“For sure it’s awesome,” Glenbard West senior and Gonzaga recruit Braden Huff said. “Throughout the year there was definitely noise and chatter about that, but we knew it would mean nothing if we didn’t win this game. We stayed focused throughout and stayed really determined to finally accomplish our goal. To be compared with other great teams, it’s really special.”
Just as special, to Glenbard West coach Jason Opoka, is how his Hilltoppers carried themselves all season. The Hilltoppers captured the imagination of the Glen Ellyn community. Kids lined up for autographs and to pose for photos after Glenbard West games at Biester Gym. Glenbard West sold out its game at Wintrust Arena, and the sectional final, within minutes.
Huff, Pierce, Warden, Bobby Durkin and Ryan Renfro energized a sport that lost its last two state finals to the pandemic.
“They are unbelievable people and words can’t describe how I feel right now,” Opoka said. “If a group comes together for a common goal, anything is possible. If you put the hard work and dedication in at anything in life you can achieve that.”
Huff had 19 points and five assists and Warden, on his future Illinois home court, scored a game-high 21 points March 12 for Glenbard West, which shot 57.9% in blowing out city champ Young for the second time this season.
Huff, like he did in the Hilltoppers’ previous win over Young, 74-59 in January, and Glenbard West’s other biggest games raised his play to another level on the big stage.
He scored and assisted on Glenbard West’s first five baskets. Young’s Xavier Amos, a 6-foot-8 NIU recruit, had no answer in trying to stop the bigger 6-foot-11 Hilltoppers senior.
In the latter stages of the third quarter, Huff drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then went behind his back with the dribble and dropped in a floater to end the third quarter with Glenbard West ahead 42-20.
“Especially in this game, being the last with these guys was for sure one that I was ready for and was not wanting to lose,” said Huff, who shot 8 for 13 from the floor. “Big games like these I get amped up for. I think we all do. It’s just been one heck of a ride.”
One Huff looked forward to celebrating back in Glen Ellyn.
“I think we need a fire truck,” he said, smiling.
Warden was 4 for 4 in the first half and the Hilltoppers led 25-16 at halftime. He finished 8 for 10 from the field, ending his night in spectacular fashion with a sweet baseline drive and reverse layup.
A Warden dunk capped a 13-0 run for a 44-20 Glenbard West lead early in the fourth quarter.
“It means a lot to play with these guys that I’ve been playing with for a while, and it’s kind of a sad moment because it’s our last moment together,” Warden said. “But we ended in a good way. So I’m really excited.”
Amos scored 14 points for Young, ranked second in the preseason. It was the first time since 2005 that the Chicago Public League did not have a state champion, the year before Derrick Rose won the first of his two state titles with Simeon.
The Dolphins (25-10) shot just 25% in the first half, and scored just four points in the third quarter. All-Stater AJ Casey, a Miami recruit, went without a field goal until the fourth quarter and scored six points.
“As a coach you want to dictate the terms of engagement, but that’s the way they have all year long,” Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “We knew it would be a challenge to play against that length and that zone and it was. And it always was this year.”
Slaughter was asked where Glenbard West belongs among the state’s elite champs.
“This is my sixth trip here and there have been a lot of great teams in this state and they are a really good team,” Slaughter said. “They’re outstanding and they do things differently than anyone has done, and they do it well, and they’ve done it since fifth grade. We’ve played some really good teams and they are one of them.”