By Brent Schwartz
All that stood between the Niles North Vikings and a regional championship were three minutes.
After a back-and-forth three quarters against Notre Dame College Prep, the Vikings used a 10-0 run to take a 48-35 lead to start the fourth. But a flurry of missed 3-pointers followed, and they squandered the advantage, eventually succumbing 55-52.
“In my 30 years coaching basketball, it was the craziest loss I’ve ever been a part of,” Niles North assistant coach George Drase said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. … We shot threes when we should have been holding the ball.
“We shot threes, we didn’t play defense, and we lost the game.”
There is no shot clock in Illinois high school basketball, meaning the Vikings could have held the ball for the remainder of the game while leading by double digits in the final minutes. But Notre Dame inserted a full-court press, and Niles North took it’s chances with their 3-point shooting, which had helped them build the big lead.
It was an odd end to an overachieving season for Niles North.
Although this season was initially perceived as a rebuilding year, the Vikings finished with a 21-10 record. Niles North won eight of its last nine games, and 13 of the last 16, before the regional championship game, despite starting four juniors and a sophomore.
“I think we figured some things out after Christmas,” Drase said.
The late-season run gives hope towards next season, when most of the team will return. All five starters from the regional championship are slated to return, including star player Damaria Franklin, and their next two leading scorers, Jamal Stephenson and Dravon Clayborn.
“We won’t surprise anybody next year,” Drase said. “Everyone will know we’re good.”
One reason for that is Franklin, who developed into one of the area’s best players this season. In a 62-60 regional semifinal win over Warren, Franklin scored a career-high 33 points, including a buzzer-beating tip-in to win the game.
“He’ll definitely get some consideration for an all-area player next year,” Drase said.
Franklin notched 16 points in the loss to Notre Dame, including three straight 3-pointers during the Vikings fourth quarter run.
An experienced coaching staff led by Drase and the father-son duo of Don and Glenn Olson also returns. Under the Olsons — Glenn is the team’s head coach and Don is an assistant — Niles North won three straight regional titles from 2010 to 2012, but since have come up empty. The Vikings’ last two seasons have ended in a regional championship loss.
“Everybody who plays will be back,” Drase said. “We’ll just hope that carries over to next year.”