RICHTON PARK — The University High School basketball team forced Rich Central to be jump shooters on Friday.
As it turns out, that was not a good thing for the Olympians in the championship game of the Class 3A Rich South Sectional, which U High won, 61-48, with help from Drew Wollenschlager’s 24 points and Nate Torres’ 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Torres said the plan was to “pack the paint and make them shooters.” The Olympians shot 35.3 percent, which wasn’t nearly hot enough to catch the Pioneers, who popped in 52.5 percent of their shots.
“We just locked up on defense,” said Wollenschlager, who called getting an early lead critical. “That’s what we’ve done this postseason.”
Rich Central tried to erase a 47-34 deficit heading into the fourth quarter with pressure defense that resembled a riot. U High played high-speed keep-away well enough to survive 14 turnovers.
That and the Pioneers’ 15-of-23 free throw shooting prevented the Olympians from getting any closer than 49-41 with 4:34 left.
“We have amazing guards that control the game,” Torres said. “Once we get a lead, it’s really rare that we lose it.”
The Sweet 16 outcome moved U High (24-9), now an eight-time sectional champion, into Tuesday’s 7 p.m. Joliet Central Super-Sectional where it will face No. 2 Chicago Bogan (28-3). Rich Central bowed out at 15-13.
“I don’t know if I feel anything right now … I’m pretty numb,” said U High coach Andrew McDowell, whose school last won a sectional in 2012 in 2A.
“I am so happy and proud of our basketball team because our kids are tough and they play so hard and they play so well together. They are just a joy to coach. No, we didn’t expect to be in the super-sectional, but we are there and we’re going to show up and compete.”
U High never trailed after Logan Christensen’s 7-foot jumper made it 4-3. Fueled by 13 points from Torres, the Pioneers built a 28-20 halftime lead.
The Olympians, who were led by Quarnell Johnson’s 14 points, had no surges longer than five points in the second half. The closest they got was 40-34 with 2:40 left in the third quarter. A reverse layup by Wollenschlager then sent U High on a 7-0 run to end the period.
“If we can play with the lead and get these guys out chasing us and get them spread, it just opens up our dribble drives,” McDowell said. “It opens up drive-and-kick, drive-and-dump-down. We play really well with the lead.
“We shoot free throws well and we handle the ball well. Once we got the lead up to 10, it was ‘spread them out and get them frustrated and attack.’”
Wollenschlager made 9 of 10 free throws including three on one visit to the line that made it 13-5. He was 7 of 10 from the field.
“He is a winner,” McDowell said. “On the biggest stage, Drew is going to be there. He was rock solid all night long. Nate was phenomenal as well. Nate was Nate tonight.”
Rich Central, which was outshot from the field the first half .458 to .350, played at a slower pace than Hillcrest did against U High on Wednesday.
“We can play at any pace,” McDowell said. “We’ll play a little faster pace on Tuesday (against Bogan), but we’re going to be ready for it.”
Rich Central, which was outrebounded 31-22, also received 10 points apiece from Unymeleak Williams and Chance Love.
“It’s always nice to see new faces,” Torres said. “All the teams in the CS8 (Central State Eight) know what we have and what we do. When we come up here, we throw some surprises at teams.”
Rich Central coach Cornelius Crossley was impressed with U High.
“That’s a fine team,” he said. “I knew they were very efficient with their offense. They are well-coached, well-disciplined team.
“We didn’t want to settle for jump shots. The first couple of possessions, I told them, ‘we’ve got to try to attack them on the inside.’ They force you to take some really errant shots. When they’ve got the ball, they do a very good job of possessing.”