By Matt Nestor
The gym at Harlem High School was packed. Half the crowd was chanting “Super Mario.”
Hononegah senior Mario Donaldson had just hit a three and was trying to will his team to victory in the IHSA Class 4A regional championship at Harlem.
Twice Hononegah had the Boylan Titans behind the eight ball in the regular season. And after Donaldson’s three gave him 29 points so far in the game, it seemed like he was going to get the job done.
But the Titans had a secret weapon just for a player as hot as Donaldson. While he scored 30 points to lead all scorers, that final three was the only basket he scored when Boylan put Steve Thomas in the game to guard him.
And with the season on the line, Thomas made sure Donaldson wasn’t going to end it for Boylan, stopping him down the stretch and helping the Titans to a 79-66 regional championship victory.
“I was just trying to slow him down,” Thomas said of his defense. “Mario is a great player. We just tried to contain him any way we could. My teammates felt that I could do it, and I just stepped up and did it.”
Thomas did more than just slow down Donaldson. He denied him the ball and forced him into a couple of bad misses down the stretch to help keep the Indians at bay.
“Of course, Mario played a tremendous game,” Boylan coach Steve Goers said. “I told Steve Thomas before the game that if we have a match-up and we’re not guarding, then you’re going in the game and guarding him most of the game. What you try to do is prepare your team mentally for what to see and what to look out for so they can take care of business.”
The Titans were fully prepared on the offensive end as well. As they have had for almost every game this season, the Titans entered with a major size advantage, and they took full advantage of it with their season in jeopardy.
Boylan was aggressive with their size all night, attacking the basket and forcing Hononegah to foul for much of the game. The Titans shot 43 free throws for the game, making 36 of them on their way to victory.
“We knew we had the height advantage,” Boylan’s Nick Bauch said. “And it didn’t matter who got it inside, we knew we had to take care of business.”
But more important than anything for the Titans, the victory gives them a chance to host the sectional round, with their first game coming against a Barrington team they have already defeated this year.
“It’s a great feeling to come in here and take care of business,” Goers said. “We wanted to get it back to Boylan for the sectional tournament.”
It was a tight regional altogether. Guilford outlasted Harlem in a play-in game, and then the following night stuck with Boylan until the final minute before falling to the Titans.
The next night saw Hononegah’s Andrew Tapley hit five threes, including a big one late, to help the Indians come from behind to knock off the second seed Auburn Knights.
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From the Mar. 10-16, issue