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St. Joseph’s Nick Rakocevic blocks Loyola’s James Clarke

St. Joseph’s Nick Rakocevic blocks Loyola’s James Clarke from driving to the basket during the Chargers’ Catholic League North victory. | Tracy Allen/For Sun-Times Media

Longtime St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore has never wavered in one belief during his career.

“I’ve always been convinced if you want to do well in the tournament you have to have a quality schedule,” said Pingatore, who is the state’s all-time winningest coach. “I’ve never backed off of that.”

St. Joseph’s schedule this season has certainly fit that formula.

The Chargers have played eight teams that are currently ranked in the Sun-Times Super 25, including Stevenson, Orr, Loyola and Bogan, which are all in the top nine. St. Rita, De La Salle, Mount Carmel and Fenwick are the other ranked opponents St. Joseph took on.

St. Joseph (24-7), which is ranked No. 11, finished with a 4-6 mark against ranked teams, including ending the regular season with an impressive 67-64 victory over No. 22 St. Rita and Kentucky-bound Charles Matthews Friday in Chicago.

“All week we promoted the game, win or lose, as a momentum builder,” Pingatore said “Playing a good, quality team on their home court can help get us ready. That’s why we play these games.”

St. Joseph sophomore Nick Rakocevic, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds against St. Rita, believes the win over the Mustangs couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It was a monumental win for us,” Rakocevic said. “Playing a team like St. Rita, which is one of the best teams in the state of Illinois, and against a player like Charles Matthews, was a great test for us. We know we’re going to face some great players and teams, so this was big. It gives us a lot of momentum going into the postseason.”

St. Joseph has been playing without talented 6-foot-5 freshman forward Lavon Thomas, who fractured his foot a month ago. The Chargers promoted 6-6 freshman Michael Downing to varsity and he saw quality minutes against St. Rita.

“I feel like if you look at our team from the beginning of the year until now, we’re winning because of team basketball,” said Rakocevic, who recently received an offer from Illinois. “We were winning off of talent in the beginning, but we’ve been trying to grasp the team concept and we finally are doing that. We know that the team is bigger than one guy and if we all play together we can do well and go far in the playoffs.”

St. Joseph drew the No. 2 seed in the Class 3A Westinghouse Sectional. The Chargers welcomed No. 15 Little Village to their own regional semifinal Tuesday, with the winner advancing to face No. 10 Timothy Christian in the final at 7 p.m. Friday in Westchester.

A rematch against No. 3 seed Fenwick could loom in the sectional semifinal. St. Joseph beat the Friars 68-62 Jan. 17 in Oak Park, then lost the second matchup 60-54 in the third-place game of the inaugural Chicago Catholic League Tournament.

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