Boys basketball: Crystal Lake South rolls past Wheaton Academy to regional title

Gators win back-to-back regionals for the first time since 1992, 1993

Crystal Lake South's AJ Demirov raises the trophy as he and his teammates celebrate wining the IHSA Class 3A Cary-Grove Boys Basketball Regional Championship game against Wheaton Academy on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024 at Cary-Grove High School.

CARY – Crystal Lake South was back to business as usual, stifling its opponent with its 1-3-1 zone defense and kicking up its transition game behind dynamic point guard AJ Demirov.

The Gators, looking nothing the team that struggled to get past Prairie Ridge in overtime two days prior, played free and easy. They took control in the second quarter and put the game away in the third for a 73-52 victory over Wheaton Academy on Friday in the Class 3A Cary-Grove Regional championship game at Elroy Fitzgerald Gymnasium.

The top-seeded Gators (29-3) advance to the Kaneland Sectional to face Freeport (21-12) in a semifinal. The Pretzels beat Rochelle 82-77 for the Boylan Regional championship.

“AJ pushed tempo and trusted his teammates,” Gators coach Matt LePage said. “We got everybody involved. That was something we talked about. These games, you have to go win them. You got to let it rip. They looked aggressive from the start of the game to the end. Thirty-two minutes of basketball, that’s what we emphasized.”

From the outset, the Gators were on their game. Demirov, who finished with a game-high 27 points and seven assists, hit a 3-pointer to start and had 10 of South’s 12 first-quarter points.

The Gators led 34-26 at halftime, then started the second half with a 16-4 run. Of South’s 11 third-quarter field goals, only Demirov’s 3 was from beyond 6 feet.

“After the last game [a 59-57 win over Prairie Ridge], we started slow. I was holding the ball a lot, taking a lot of shots,” Demirov said. “At practice yesterday, we said we have to move the ball. If we’re going to win this, we’re going to win it as a team. I think this is how we’re going to play the rest of the playoffs.

“I was hyped up. We were all hyped up, we had a lot of energy coming out of the locker room. We were feeling a lot of energy.”

Christian Rohde, South’s 6-foot-8 senior center, finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots and was key to the Gators’ big night.

“I had an off game last game,” Rohde said. “My priority here was to help my team and be as physical as I can and playe defense.

“In pregame we made it a priority to trust each other, that’s how we were going to win. My teammates gave me the ball, that showed they trusted me, so I just returned the favor.”

A moment that exemplified South’s game came early in the fourth quarter when Demirov came up with a loose ball and raced down the court. As he cut left at the free-throw line, he whipped a left-handed, no-look pass to Rohde for a dunk.

Then, James Carlson stole the inbounds pass and scored on a layup.

“Just everybody involved, being a team tonight,” LePage said. “AJ has an incredible knack of finding his own scoring and distributing. When guys are playing off of him and cutting, we can play like that.

“Our defense had juice for 32 minutes. This team hasn’t been under 51 all year. We knew we had to score.”

No. 4 Wheaton Academy (18-12) was led by point guard Wandy Munoz with 15 points. Alex Moncau added 12 points with four 3s, Ty Smith scored nine and Hayden Schroeder added eight.

Schroeder and Moncau are both 6-7 and forward Ben DeHaan is 6-6, but Rohde gave the Warriors trouble inside.

“His rim protection made it tough on our guys,” Warriors coach Dan Smith said. “A few times when we thought we had easy buckets he was right there to knock it off.

“It looked like the Wednesday game was a wake-up call for them and they weren’t going to let that happen again. They were bigger, faster and stronger than we were. We felt it, their size bothered us. We let AJ get loose a few times, he hit some tough shots. They played a very sound game on both sides of the ball.”

South won its first regional since 2002 last season and now has back-to-back regional titles for the first time since 1992 and 1993.

The Gators needed a reprieve against No. 8-seeded Prairie Ridge to get to the title game, but took full advantage once they got there.

“We learned from it. You have to go and earn these things, they’re not just going to be given,” LePage said. “I look back at that game, this is who we are, this is how we play.”

Crystal Lake South 73, Wheaton Academy 52
Munoz 4 7-8 15, Smith 4 0-0 9, Moncau 4 0-0 12, DeHaan 1 0-0 2, Schroeder 4 0-4 8, Thomas 1 0-0 3, Swoboda 1 0-0 3, Baaman 0 0-0 0, Coniaris 0 0-0 0. Totals: 19 7-12 52.
Demirov 11 3-3 27, Santarelli 4 0-3 8, Rohde 6 0-0 12, Carlson 2 0-0 4, Hess 4 0-0 8, Trivellini 1 0-0 3, Regillio 1 0-0 2, Buelna 3 0-0 7, Prokos 1 0-0 2, Stroner 0 0-0 0, Orlick 0 0-0 0, Stowasser 0 0-0 0. Totals: 33 3-6 73.
Wheaton Academy 9 17 11 16 – 52
CL South 12 22 23 16 – 73
3-point goals: Wheaton Academy 7 (Moncau 4, Smith, Thomas, Swoboda), CL South 4 (Demirov 2, Trivellini, Buelna). Total fouls: Wheaton Academy 8, CL South 14.