Boys basketball: Crystal Lake South holds off Burlington Central in FVC game

Crystal Lake South's AJ Demirov drivers to the basket against Burlington Central's Caden West during a Fox Valley Conference boys basketball game on Friday, Dec.1, 2023, at Crystal Lake South High School.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Crystal Lake South boys basketball coach Matt LePage thought hard about calling a timeout with the score tied with Burlington Central Friday and his team handling the ball.

LePage considered calling it with 1 minute remaining, after the Gators has used up 45 seconds. He thought about it again about 20 seconds later, but held off because he has a really talented guard and sensed he was about to do something special.

“I was about five seconds from calling a timeout,” LePage said. “I could see AJ (Demirov) was comfortable, there was no one coming up to take a charge. It was a good read by him.”

Demirov sped down the left side of the lane and banked in a left-handed layup with 39 seconds to go, giving the Gators the lead for good in their 53-51 Fox Valley Conference victory over the Rockets Friday at The Swamp.

South’s Colton Hess got a steal on the next possession and the Gators (5-1, 2-0 FVC) were able to put the game away at the free-throw line.

Demirov battled the Rockets’ Caden West all game. He noticed Central (3-2, 1-1) was not giving West as much help in the second half, so he drove hard to the hoop, after the Gators had held the ball more than a minute with it tied at 45-45.

“We were trying to get the best shot we possibly could and coach told us to get to the rim,” Demirov said. “They packed it in a lot in the paint and eventually we found a good driving lane and I got a layup.

“It was a physical game, rebounding, boxing out. We moved the ball well, we were physical, we rebounded, we did everything we needed to to win.”

Tony Santarelli led the Gators with 20 points, Demirov tossed in 15 and James Carlson added 10. Jake Johnson led Central, the three-time defending FVC champion, with 16 and four 3-pointers.

Santarelli, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, had his best game of the season and scored six as South bolted out to a 12-0 lead at the start.

“Tony played an awesome game,” LePage said. “We’ve been waiting for him, he’s capable. We’re glad he showed up tonight.”

Santarelli hit 7 of 9 field goals and was 5 for 5 at the line.

“It’s nice having my coaches and teammates having the confidence in me to make shots, even after a couple slow offensive games,” Santarelli said. “It feels good for sure.”

Central came back and led 23-19 late in the second quarter before South closed the half with a 24-23 advantage. The Rockets got their last lead with the first basket of the second half, but kept chipping away at South, which led by seven early in the fourth quarter.

The Rockets were without 6-3 Patrick Shell, who was missing with a leg injury.

“I’m leaving here pretty pleased with how we played, down probably our top defender (Patrick Shell),” Rockets coach Brett Porto said. “That really put us behind the 8-ball, but we had some guys step up and we played well. You can’t start a game down 12-0, but we battled back and we leave here with a lot of positives.”

Freshman Bennek Braden was one of those, hitting two big 3s early in the fourth quarter to bring the Rockets back.

Central’s Myles’ Lowe nailed a jumper with 1:45 left to make it 45-45. From there, South held on to the ball until Demirov made his crucial layup.

“I don’t think I’ve ever beat them,” Demirov said. “It feels good, it feels good for coach too. There’s been a lot of tough battles over there and here.”

LePage could not remember beating Central since the Rockets joined the FVC in the 2019-20 season. They went through the 2021 and 2022 seasons without losing an FVC game.

“It’s been a while,” LePage said. “It feels strange. They’ve had some great teams. We adjusted well in the third quarter to the physicality of (Johnson and Lowe). James (Carlson), Tony (Santarelli), Colton Hess, they just played physical. We outrebounded them by plus-8. That was huge.”

South enjoyed a 31-23 rebounding edge.

Crystal Lake South 53, Burlington Central 51

BURLINGTON CENTRAL (51)

West 3 1-2 7, Kerr 1 1-5 3, Lowe 6 1-1 13, Johnson 5 2-2 16, Magan 0 0-0 0, Braden 4 2-3 12, Cumpata 0 0-0 0, Moore 0 0-0 0. Totals: 19 7-16 51.

CL SOUTH (53)

Demirov 5 3-4 15, Santarelli 7 5-5 20, Rohde 1 0-0 2, Carlson 3 2-2 10, Hess 2 2-4 6, Regillio 0 0-0 0, Trivellini 0 0-0 0, Prokos 0 0-0 0, Buelna 0 0-0 0. Totals: 18 12-15 53.

Central 11 12 10 18 – 51

CL South 12 12 16 13 – 53

3-point goals: Central 6 (Johnson 4, Braden 2), CL South 5 (Demirov 2, Carlson 2, Santarelli). Total fouls: Central 14, CL South 17.