ROCHELLE – Rochelle’s student section held up a sign declaring “Knightmare on Purple Pass.” As if Kaneland boys basketball coach Brian Johnson needed a reminder.
Before winning Friday night’s Class 3A Rochelle Regional championship game, 65-61, in overtime, Johnson’s team was done. Too far behind – down 16 points midway through the third quarter, and eight with three minutes left – the Knights’ improbable win seemed impossible. Even as momentum started to turn, time relentlessly disappeared.
“There were about four minutes left, and I looked at my coach and said, ‘I don’t know if we have another one in us,’ ” Johnson said. “It seems like we just get down so much to Rochelle.”
It happened the last time Kaneland (17-10) played Rochelle (21-9), when the Knights’ furious comeback on Feb. 24 fell short. Johnson was ready for déjà vu.
But Kaneland, riding senior Marcel Neil and sophomore Thomas Williams down the stretch, scored the final eight points of regulation and the first six of overtime. In just minutes, Rochelle’s students were silenced. Before rushing the court, Kaneland’s student section chanted “just like football,” where the Knights beat the Hubs in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
Afterward, Johnson rubbed his forehead and paused. With his team cutting down the net a few yards away, he finally settled on the right word.
“Disbelief,” Johnson said. “The boys were just resilient. It just says a lot about their character.”
Neil finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds, while Thomas added 19 points and 10 boards. Both relentlessly drove to the basket down the stretch, getting good shots and getting to the foul line.
Neil had 15 of his points in the second half, and finished 15 of 17 from the line.
“They were huge,” Johnson said. “Those are two kids who know how to score. They got to the bucket and played really, really hard.”
Rochelle turned a three-point lead after the first quarter into a 33-20 halftime edge, thanks to a second period when things unraveled for Kaneland. The Knights, who will play the winner of today’s Marengo Regional final between Rockford East and Belvidere in Tuesday night’s Sycamore Sectional semifinal, picked up two technical fouls and were held to seven points.
But Williams said he never felt players never doubted they would make a comeback.
“Coach always tells us we’re a fourth-quarter team,” Williams said. “We just thrive off that intensity. We were making plays, and we just kept fighting. We never gave up.”
Atop the ladder after the game, Neil left one string of net for Johnson to cut down. The coach stepped to the ladder’s base, but gave his senior a hug before climbing up.
Afterward, Neil was showered with silly string by his fellow students.
“It was a lot of adversity tonight, a lot of emotions going on,” Johnson said. “But cooler heads prevailed with some of our guys, and they did a great job.”