PEORIA, Ill. -- Simeon’s players took their shoes off and laid them side by side on the basketball floor at Carver Arena as their fans surrounded them on Saturday night.
It was a sight unseen at the state tournament before. But then again, Simeon just got finished doing something no program in the state had done before.
With Simeon’s 50-48 victory over previously-unbeaten Proviso East in the Class 4A state championship on Saturday, Simeon became the first program in state history to win six state titles, surpassing Peoria Manual’s and Peoria Central’s five trophies.
“The kids wanted to leave their footprints on the floor,” Simeon coach Robert Smith explained of the shoes.
Simeon and Smith did set themselves apart on Saturday. The Wolverines won their third consecutive title and fifth in the last seven years. Smith also became the first Illinois coach to win five titles.
“This is not it,” Smith said. “We’re on our way to try to come back again here next year.”
In what had been hyped as one of the most anticipated games in nearly a decade, No. 1 Simeon and No. 2 Proviso East gave fans what they wanted. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the two teams showed why neither had lost to an in-state opponent all season.
Like two heavyweight championship fighters, Proviso East (33-1) and Simeon (32-1) went blow for blow throughout Saturday’s game. Proviso East had Simeon on the ropes with a 39-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines weren’t shaken.
“Guys didn’t give up, guys didn’t get rattled,” Smith said. “A lot of teams would have got rattled when they got down, and we didn’t.”
Simeon fought back to tie the game at 41, and senior Steve Taylor gave the Wolverines their first advantage at 43-41 with an inside basket with 3:31 remaining. The Wolverines wouldn’t trail again.
“That’s just a lot of heart,” Simeon senior Jaleni Neely said. “That’s playing with a lot of heart and confidence in your team. We have a lot of confidence in each other. We knew we weren’t going to lose this game.”
Proviso East junior Sterling Brown did give Simeon one heck of a scare. Playing the game of his life, Brown scored a game-high 25 points. Everything he put up seemed to fall through the net. He even drained a fade-away 3-pointer just as time was expiring to pull Proviso East within two points.
While Brown did his part for Proviso East, Taylor drove Simeon. He scored 12 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and had three steals in his final high school game.
For Taylor, Saturday’s game was personal, and he pointed and yelled across the court to Proviso East as Simeon awaited its trophy afterward.
“They’ve been talking and following us around all year,” Taylor said. “I had to get it. It was a must.”
First-year Proviso East coach Donnie Boyce felt he had let his team down in some way.
“It was in our grasp, and it’s just really frustrating and disappointing, especially for the kids,” Boyce said. “Some kids that really fought hard. They’re out there right now in that locker room crying their eyes out. I feel like I let them down. I feel like maybe tonight I made one or two substitutions that came back to bite us in the end.”
What’s hot in today’s culture is often defined by what’s trending on Twitter. In the fourth quarter on Saturday, Proviso East, Simeon and Sterling Brown were all trending in Chicago.