By Michael O'Brien
PEORIA, ILNorth Chicago senior Aaron Simpson was a star as soon as he stepped on the high school court, helping the Warhawks advance deep into the state playoffs his entire career. He was generally at his best in March.
That Simpson magic helped spark a North Chicago fourth-quarter comeback Saturday, but it wasnt enough. Peoria Central beat the Warhawks 72-64 to win the Class 3A state championship.
Simpson scored 26 points, shooting 10-for-26 from the field. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, his layup with 4:28 to play brought North Chicago within four points, but that was as close as it would get.
Simpson finishes his career as North Chicagos all-time leading scorer, with third- and fourth-place trophies in the state tournament.
We are going to miss Aaron, North Chicago coach Gerald Coleman said. Its a sad day for me. I had been waiting on him since sixth grade. To coach him was awesome. We always had 25 points before tip-off.
The Warhawks led for most of the first quarter, but Peoria Central started to assert itself midway through the second quarter. The Lions had a definite size advantage.
They made us change a lot of shots, that was a factor, Simpson said.
Peoria Central led by 14 late in the third quarter. North Chicago staged a steady, valiant comeback at that point, using a 13-5 run to cut the deficit to four on Simpsons layup. But the effort took a toll.
Fatigue got to us, Simpson said. We were tired. We didnt have a lot of guys that were able to come in and play for us.
Simpson made a point to compliment Peoria Central senior Jerrell White.
White is a great player, Simpson said. He played a lot of defense on me.
Sophomore JaVairius Amos-Mays scored 17 and grabbed eight rebounds and sophomore Kurt Hall scored 11 and had eight rebounds for the Warhawks (25-7).
We have three very good sophomores, Coleman said. Im very excited about next years team.
The first half was a showcase for Peoria Central senior Aldonis Foote, who threw down two spectacular dunks and blocked a North Chicago three-point attempt five rows into the seats. He scored 17 points.
I didnt know he could do that, Simpson said. I was surprised too.
Peoria Centrals last state title was in 2004, the second consecutive championship for the team captained by Shaun Livingston, who was in the NBA just a few months later.
The Lions have won five state championships and their program is one of the most prestigious in the state.
Good for our school, our program, our city, Peoria Central coach Dan Ruffin said. Peoria High is the pride of Peoria right now. My kids were fantastic today.
Over the past two seasons, North Chicago has slowly begun to earn some respect. The Warhawks beat two highly-regarded programs: Marshall and Springfield Lanphier, to advance to the title game.
We made it a step better than last year, Coleman said. Im proud of our kids. I thought they left it out on the court.
"There are a whole lot of teams that would love to be in second place. Its good for our community.