By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
The Rockford Lutheran Crusaders were a minute from playing for the IHSA Class 3A championship. They sat with a 42-40 lead and the ball as the time ticked away.
A turnover led to a 3-point shot from Lincoln’s Gavin Block. Two more points later, it came down to a last-second heave from Crusaders’ senior star Thomas Kopelman that was off the mark.
That is how the Crusaders’ 3A semifinal effort ended. Lutheran’s second trip to the state finals in three years. The first time, it was in Class 2A, where they took third. This time, it was in 3A.
Lutheran battled hard as the underdog and had the game in a spot they typically win. Kopelman led the way with 17 points, while Nate Wieting had 10. But late turnovers were the key, including the one that set up the 3 by Block.
“Our kids battled as hard as they possibly could,” Lutheran Head Coach Tom Guse said. “We turned the ball over more than we normally do, and, ultimately, that was the difference in the game. We just weren’t secure with the ball.”
Much like their 2012 trip in 2A, that relegated the Crusaders to a third-place game. This time, they would face Chicago Orr, which lost a tight game against eventual champion Chicago Morgan Park.
The Crusaders again got off to a good start, jumping out to a 17-7 lead in the first quarter. But a 20-3 run by Orr in the second quarter ultimately proved to be a decided factor.
Lutheran was ice cold in the game, shooting 32 percent for the game and only 23 percent from 3-point range. Mixed in with a poor night at the free-throw line, and it was a lot for Lutheran to overcome.
“They put a lot of pressure on us, and we had too many turnovers,” Guse said. “We shot the ball great all season long, but tonight, they just weren’t falling like they normally do.”
Kopelman has 11 points in his final game of his high school career, while Wieting and Joseph Kellen led the way with 12 apiece.
Lutheran struggled with turnovers for a second straight game, this time with 19 turnovers. The big difference, unlike against Lincoln, is Orr was able to convert those into points, outscoring Lutheran 22-9 in points off turnovers.
“You have to credit the teams we’re playing,” Guse said. “The further you go in the tournament, the defenses that you are facing are that much more longer, faster, more athletic — and it’s a big stage.”
Despite the fourth-place finish down state, this was ultimately an impressive season for Lutheran. They fought through injuries and adversity all season long to win their first Big Northern West Conference Championship. Then, in only their second year playing in Class 3A, made it all the way down state.
“They kept battling,” Guse said. “We have a bunch of guys with a tremendous amount of character and heart who weren’t going to end their season without a fight.”
Posted March 25, 2014