In only his second year Niles West Coach Bob Williams has already put his stamp on the Niles West basketball program. He’s instilled a relentless pressure defense and Niles West captured their first regional championship since 2004.
But the one thing Williams can’t teach his team – experience -- finally caught up to them in Wednesday night’s sectional semifinal.
In the blink of an eye – or roughly the first nine minutes of the game – a more seasoned Schaumburg team blitzed Niles West for a 22-2 lead. The Wolves climbed back to within four points on two occasions, but never closed the deficit completely in a 56-48 loss to the Saxons in the IHSA Class 4A Winnetka Sectional semi-finals.
“I think the situation got to us a bit. We did some things that we haven’t done for a long time,” Williams said. “I think we went back to some bad habits because of maybe nerves or lack of confidence.
“Once we got our feet under us we played a heck of a basketball game.”
Ironically it’s Williams who is mainly responsible for the huge gap in experience between the two programs. Before coming over to Niles West in 2008, Williams led Schaumburg for 18 years, including 16 consecutive winning seasons to end his tenure.
Niles West’s nerves were evident from the start. Seniors Tony Pierce and Lauris Herth combined to miss all six of their shot attempts in the first quarter and the Wolves' only field goal came on an Alek Biser putback layup three minutes into the game.
Compounding the situation, point guard Donte Logan picked up his second foul of the game less than three minutes in. Minus their starting point guard, the Wolves’ struggles continued as Schaumburg went on a 15-2 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 22-2.
“Donte’s easily the most important player on our team. He runs everything, he gets everything going,” Niles West senior guard Ramsan Younatham said. “Without Donte, our catalyst isn’t there and I feel we suffered a lot having Donte in foul trouble in the beginning.”
From then on, Niles West found its shooting touch from the outside. The Wolves went 4-for-6 from beyond the arc in the second quarter and their defense started forcing more turnovers.
Younatham’s three-pointer with six seconds left pulled the Wolves to within six points at halftime, 30-24.
Logan continued to get in foul trouble, picking up his fourth foul less than three minutes into the third quarter. But while he sat the rest of the quarter, his teammates picked up the slack, keeping the deficit at seven points heading into the fourth quarter.
“Nate Sagett came in and just played a great game both ways, very solid for us,” Williams said of his junior guard. “[Freshman] Ahmad Gibson played very well and handled the ball some for us.”
Logan re-entered the game early in the fourth quarter, but Niles West still struggled offensively. The Wolves’ defense forced 11 second-half turnovers, but rarely took advantage in transition.
The Wolves again cut the Schaumburg lead to four points with 1:36 left, but the Saxons went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line to close out the game.
“I was proud of our kids for our character and this helps our program take a huge step forward, getting here and having this experience with these kids,” Williams said. “I’m very happy with that. It’s disappointing that we didn’t come out with our best effort to start the game.”
Tony Pierce led Niles West with 15 points, 12 of which came in the second half.
Rebuilding for next year won’t be easy for Niles West. They graduate four of their five starters and a vast majority of their scoring.
But the players and coaching staff feel like they have the program headed in the right direction after years of sub-par results.
“We’ve set a legacy for Niles West. We’ve put ourselves on the map especially for next year,” Younatham said. “This program is getting better and better.
“Coach Williams is teaching us a hard way to play defense and a hard way to play offense. It takes a lot of years and a lot of time to pick up.”