Despite his team's heart-breaking, last-second overtime loss to Homewood-Flossmoor on Feb. 9, Hillcrest coach Don Houston still believes his Hawks are on track to make a repeat appearance in the Class 3A finals. So does Jovan Mooring, who knows what it takes to get there.
"This is my team," said Mooring, a 6-foot-1 senior guard who is averaging 19 points per game. "Personally, no one outside of us thinks we can win the state title. But we think we can beat anyone.
"There is a lot of hype for Morgan Park and North Chicago and Orr. I haven't heard of (Downstate) Washington. But I've seen Morgan Park. We can play with anyone. People think we rebuild every year but we don't lose any talent."
In his sixth year at the Country Club Hills school, Houston guided Hillcrest to a state championship in 2010 and third place last year. This year's team is 19-6 and has won 10 of its last 11 games going into Friday night's regular season closer against Lemont.
Hillcrest holds a one-game edge over Lemont in the South Suburban's Blue Division.
After losing to H-F, Hillcrest swept Tinley Park 73-41 and Thornton Fractional South 62-48 last week. Mooring had 13 points against Tinley Park while Taylor Adway had 18 points and nine rebounds and Kyle Oden scored 11.
Against T.F. South, Mooring scored 15, Devin Harrison 14, Oden and Adway 12 each. Oden scored six in a 17-4 run in the third quarter that broke open the contest.
"We got off to a slow start (9-5 after Christmas) by our standards. But now our record is like last year and previous years," Houston said. "We only returned two starters. All the rest were new to varsity experience. They didn't have a lot of playing time.
"We anticipated if the big kids filled the roles we had last year we could be in the same spot. It was good to have our guards coming back. It took time but we're getting there. This team is every bit as good as last year. It has the caliber to win the state title."
Mooring agrees. Houston describes him as "a very special player." He was a Class 3A All-State selection a year ago. He is attracting interest from Illinois-Chicago, Akron, Miami (Ohio), East Tennessee State, Western Kentucky, Ohio University and several junior colleges.
"Last year, it was disappointing that we didn't win the state title. It was a successful season but we didn't accomplish enough," Mooring said. "This team is faster than last year. We push the ball a lot more. I like that style.
"Last year, I was considered a leader so I'm doing what I did last year. But I speak up a lot more. I don't beat on them but I let them know what they are doing wrong and keep them on the right track. I make sure the team stays on the same page.
"I talk to them or take them aside and talk to someone one-on-one. I'm always alert for change in attitude, facial expressions, demeanor and body language, how a kid reacts to how the coach talks to him. On the floor, I make sure no one disrespects the officials.
"I don't have a problem if they express themselves as long as they do what they are supposed to do and handle business on the court."
Mooring has been playing basketball since fourth grade. He grew up watching his older brother, Russell Durr, who played at Thornwood.
"He was a real good basketball player but he didn't pursue it as much as I did. He didn't make it his future," Mooring said. "I want to play in college. He didn't have as much passion for the game as I do. You need confidence and work ethic to be a great player."
Mooring has worked hard to improve his defense and ball-handling. "I'm a lot better this year, more explosive. I attack the basket a lot more," he said.
The Hawks are getting better with experience. Other starters are Oden (12 ppg, 6 apg), a 5-foot-10 senior point guard; Adway (8 ppg, 7 rpg, 4 blocks), a 6-foot-7 sophomore; 6-foot-6 senior Delmon Brame (8 ppg, 6 rpg); and Harrison (6 ppg, 4 steals), a 6-foot-1 senior and defensive specialist.
Top reserves are 6-foot-1 junior Allen Jones (7 ppg), who splits time with Harrison, and 6-foot-4 sophomore DeAngelo Isby (4 ppg).
"You've got to have great guards to win a state title," Houston said. "Mooring and Oden are a unique pair. They were Downstate as juniors. They have been playing together since they were 9 years old. They are like brothers."
Houston predicts Adway is the next great player at Hillcrest. "He is starting to play above and beyond his expectations. He alters a lot of shots. In two years, the sky is the limit for him. He is one of those kids that a lot of colleges will knock down doors to get. He will be special," the coach said.
"I believe they can do it. They saw other teams do it. Now the inexperienced kids must realize they can produce in big games. If they do, we can do damaging things. Confidence is the big thing. We have the ability.
The key is to play as a team, not as individuals. We're looking more like a team now."