By Mark Maxwell
The Richton Park fire marshal was turning people away at the door of the McDipper Tournament championship game as the crowd reached maximum capacity an hour before tipoff. In front of a sellout crowd, the Thornton Wildcats (7-4) were denied entry from the championship celebration as Marian Catholic (10-1) won, 75-58.
Thornton, hot off of an upset win in the semifinals over Bolingbrook (8-2), started the game on an 8-1 run. That margin vanished quickly as Spartans point guard and Kentucky commit, Tyler Ulis (28 points, six assists, four rebounds) erupted on an absolute tear in the second quarter, willing his team to victory and earning tournament MVP honors for the second straight year.
The raucous crowd definitely got their money’s worth. During one stretch of consecutive plays, Ulis recorded an assist, knocked down a three pointer, dished another assist, stole the ball on the defensive end, hustled back in transition to find Christopher Austin for a corner three ball, penetrated the lane and finished a contested layup in traffic. Ulis finished the scorching series with one last three-pointer of his own, amassing eight points, three assists and a steal in a matter of mere minutes.
“We came out a little over-excited so I just tried to do something to get us back into it,” Ulis said with the MVP plaque in hand. “Get a steal, get an assist, whatever I could do to give us confidence.”
While Ulis caught his breath on the bench, teammate Ki-Jana Crawford (nine points, seven rebounds, three steals) did the heavy lifting in the backcourt. Crawford drove through traffic and drew enough contact for two trips to the foul line late in the game where he went a perfect four-for-four and kept the surging Wildcats team at bay.
“I think defense won us the tournament and wins us most of our games,” Crawford said. “Getting out in transition and getting the ball ahead, I think we did that pretty well.”
Coach Mike Taylor led Marian Catholic to its first McDipper title last season. In his second-straight McDipper championship game, Taylor threw a bevy of defensive looks at the aggressive Wildcats’ offense. The Spartans showed their discipline and versatility, switching in and out of man, 2-3 zone, 3-2 zone, three-quarter court and full court pressure.
“I told our guys, ‘Just keep playing hard. Play defense with your feet,’” Taylor said. “We create a lot with our defense and we play aggressively.”
Winning the tournament two seasons in a row has done more than raise a few eyebrows among area high schools. The Spartans anticipate that their upcoming opponents have probably circled the Marian Catholic game on their calendars.
“Winning this championship back-to-back, everyone in this tournament wanted to knock us off,” said senior guard Josh Cohn. “Everybody who we play wants to knock us off. We always know we're going to have a target. We go into the gym knowing we have a target on our back. You know, we work hard every day in the gym knowing that people want to beat us.”
While winning the tournament is a nice feather in Marian Catholic’s midseason cap, it’s certainly not the end goal for the Spartans. When asked about his expectations for the remainder of the year, Ki-Jana Crawford was confident and very direct: “Win conference and win state.”