Somewhere, the late Homestead Hall of Fame basketball coach John Chekouras is showing pride, if not exactly smiling.
The pride would have come from the grit, effort and sweat the Highlanders showed Friday night in falling to unbeaten and fifth-ranked in the state Milwaukee Hamilton, 46-39, in the final of Homestead's tournament that is named for Chekouras.
After the game, his widow and his daughter presented the championship plaque to Hamilton coach Tom Diener.
And then maybe Chekouras would have forced a small smile at what his old rival Diener said in honor of him.
"He was one of the finest teachers and coaches that I've ever met in my life," said Diener. "...This is a great event to honor an outstanding coach and an even better person."
Back when he was in his state championship heyday about 15 years ago at Milwaukee Vincent, Diener's squads frequently stymied Chekouras' Highlanders in WIAA tourney play.
Just as a Diener-led Hamilton squad stymied a Kevin McKenna-led Homestead team this night in a game that finally finished the Highlanders' grueling grind that was the first month of the season with a 9-5 record.
McKenna too showed pride in the effort.
"We do have to take pride," he said. "This would have been a huge win had we been able to pull it off, but we have to look at the positive. We look at the Milwaukee Vincent and Milwaukee Hamilton games we played this month. We got blown out by Vincent (some weeks ago), but here we take a state-ranked team to the limit."
"I don't think we could have done this a couple of weeks ago, but we're starting to play great defense and the kids are starting to buy into what we're telling them."
The Highlanders kept up with the 11-0 Wildcats by playing tough in-your-face defense and by contesting every loose ball and rebound.
Thanks to 11 points and nine rebounds in the first 16 minutes by 6-8 BYU-bound forward Luke Worthington, the Highlanders held a 22-21 lead. Worthington's putback with 17 seconds left in the session gave Homestead that advantage.
McKenna noted that Worthington's numbers have not been spectacular so far this month, but that is due to mitigating circumstances.
"Luke has been playing hard all along, it's just that he has been battling foul trouble so much," said McKenna. "Tonight, the kids were allowed to play a bit and Luke is doing a better job of not fouling people."
Worthington would finish with a team-high 18 points.
Showing more discipline on offense, the Wildcats battled back in the third quarter, taking better shots and earning a 31-30 lead by the end of the stanza.
"In the first half I think we took about six or seven ill-advised shots," said Diener. "In the second, I can only think of about one. When you do that, it's going to make a big difference and I think our shooting percentage reflected that."
Indeed, patiently looking for the good shot, Hamilton hit nine of 17 shots in the second half, including six of eight in the fourth quarter.
Hamilton went up 31-30 at the end of the third and Homestead took its last lead of the night when gritty guard Jerrod Walton hit a high floating bank shot over the Wildcats' nationally-regarded 6-8 forward Kevon Looney (15 points and numerous blocks).
That shot made the score 33-31 with 6:25 to go in the game.
But then Hamilton went on a 7-0 run and it coincided with Walton having to come out for a time with a split lip and loose tooth. That burst put Wildcats up 38-33 with 3:39 left and Homestead had to battle uphill the rest of the way.
The Highlanders got to within three on a tough shot by Worthington, but then the Wildcats got hoops from forward David Burrell (game-high 20 points) and guard Danya Kingsby to make it 42-35 with 1:57 on the clock.
Despite having the Wildcats go just two for nine from the foul line in the fourth period, Homestead could not get within five after that point as the Highlanders went cold in the final stanza, hitting just two of 14 shots.
Walton supported Worthington with nine points.
"We had some good looks, (especially from three-point range)," said McKenna. "Especially Jake (Laihinen) but he was coming off the flu and he just couldn't them to go. But he was a warrior out there tonight."
As was the entire team, said McKenna.
"We've been doing a very good job of team play and body help lately," said McKenna. "It's been a big emphasis of ours the last two-three weeks. Lots of guys are stepping up."
And that's a trend that would definitely had made John Chekouras smile.
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