This is the way it was supposed to be from the beginning. Mundelein has won six of its last seven games, finally has its starting lineup intact, is suffocating opponents with its man-to-man defense and Sean O'Brien is performing like one of the best players in the state.
Just in the nick of time. The Mustangs (18-3) will meet conference rival Stevenson (25-4) on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the Class 4A sectional at Waukegan. They have lost two previous games to the North Suburban Lake champion, which has won 15 in a row.
This is where coach Dick Knar thought his team would be. Mundelein was 28-6 last year, losing to Warren in the sectional final. He returned five starters and eight of his top 10 players. Last June, they won 28 games in a row. They played in an invitation-only tournament in California.
"It is one of the best teams I've coached in 16 years," Knar said. "I made the schedule as hard as I could because I felt this team could make a run for the state title. Everything was in place to have a great season."
[RELATED: CSN Top 20 Preps Rankings Week 15]
Then the balloon broke. The bottom fell out. A lot of things happened and they were all bad. His son Robert, who averaged 26 points per game last season, suffered a torn ACL injury in July. One player tore up his shoulder in football and missed the entire season. O'Brien had hernia surgery. A car accident sidelined some players. Others were sick and missed games. One played through a game with the flu.
"I have never gone through anything like this," the coach said. "It was one bad experience after another."
The good news is the projected starting lineup from last summer finally took the floor together for the first time on Feb. 13.
"Now we're playing like we thought we could," O'Brien said. "We felt we could go to state in the beginning. The last five games is the closest to how well we played in the summer. We're getting used to playing with each other all over again. This isn't what we expected...but this is where we wanted to be at this time of the season."
Mundelein won its third regional title in a row last Friday, ousting 20-game winner and conference rival Lake Forest 59-56. O'Brien had 22 points, 15 rebounds and three assists as the Mustangs overcame a five-point halftime deficit and held Lake Forest scoreless in the last 2:22.
"We know we can score but defense is always our weak point," O'Brien said. "That's what we've been focusing on and the last two games we've probably played our best defensive games all year."
Against Stevenson, Mundelein likely will have to play even better defense. O'Brien, a 6-foot-7 senior who is committed to Southern Illinois, will get the assignment of containing or harassing or slowing down sophomore star Jalen Brunson, a 6-foot-2 point guard.
"It's our biggest challenge of the season," O'Brien said. "The key for us to lock in on defense. We have played defense very well lately. If we rebound well, we can get in the transition game and get up and go, which is the way we like to play.
"Brunson is quick but I'm long and can alter his shot. I want to try to keep him out of the lane and make other guys beat us."
Dick Knar describes Brunson as a future NBA player, the best player he has seen in nine years in the North Suburban League, better than former stars Lenzelle Smith (Ohio State) of Zion-Benton, Brandon Paul (Illinois) of Warrenm Matt Vogrich (Michigan) of Lake Forest and Ben Brust (Wisconsin) of Mundelein.
"The key to beating Stevenson is limiting Brunson," the coach said. "Make him take hard shots, no easy baskets. Get the ball out of his hands. O'Brien is very long. We want Brunson shooting over his long hand. Keep length on him."
O'Brien will need help, of course. When Robert Knar was sidelined, he had to step up as a player and leader. He has earned All-Chicago Area recognition. He is averaging 21 points, 11 rebounds and six assists per game and is the school's all-time leading shot blocker. He is in position to become the school's all-time leading rebounder.
Robert Knar rejoined the team on Feb. 8 but doctors have limited his participation. For the first few games, he could play only two minutes per quarter. Now he can play as many as four minutes per quarter. But he can't play point guard, where he made 207 assists last season. He must play small forward.
Knar, a 6-foot-1 senior who is committed to Northern Iowa, needs four points to reach 2,000 for his career. He is the school's all-time leading scorer and No. 3 in Lake County history behind Deerfield's Ryan Hogan and North Chicago's Aaron Simpson.
Other starters are 6-foot senior Quinn Pokora (10 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior Chino Ebube (18.5 ppg) and 6-foot-2 senior Cliff Dunigan (13 ppg). Dylan DeLaquila, a 5-foot-9 senior, comes off the bench. Ebube, a human highlight film, had 11 dunks in one game. He and Dunigan are committed to Missouri S&T.
"We're playing better but we don't score as we did when Robert had the ball in his hands," his father said.
"This season has been disappointing and frustrating," O'Brien said. "We had different lineups for the first 15 games. We had no chemistry. After (Knar) went down, I was ready to take a bigger role. I worked hard after my hernia surgery. I had to be more aggressive and be a leader on offense. I had to put the team on my shoulders."
A year ago, O'Brien averaged 15 points per game as a perimeter player, a position he will play at SIU. But when Knar was sidelined, his role expanded. He is stronger and more versatile and more athletic this season. He goes to the rim more and he is a major factor under the boards as a shot blocker and rebounder.
"What we did in the regular season doesn't have an effect on what we do in the playoff," coach Knar said. "This is a different season, no doubt about that. After the summer that we had, who would have thought we'd have to go through something like this? But here we are, exactly where we wanted to be from the beginning."