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PEORIA — Morgan Park’s ride to the state title last season seemed destined from the start. A Division-I caliber backcourt, talented and poised, cut through opponents all season.
This season was different. The Mustangs were expected to struggle with a young backcourt.
That happened early in the season, but the sophomores kept improving and eventually teamed with rock-solid seniors Josh Cunningham and Lamont Walker to lead Morgan Park to its second consecutive Class 3A state title with a 59-49 win over Lincoln Saturday at Carver Arena.
“The knock on us was ‘can the guards do it,’ ’’ Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin said. “People didn’t believe in them. It’s a little sweeter this year.”
The Mustangs (24-6) dominated the final 10 minutes of the game, using a 26-2 run to turn a 13-point deficit into a 52-41 lead.
“We didn’t get down on ourselves when we were behind,” Cunningham said. “We stayed confident and once things started to turn around we just kept going.”
Lincoln (34-3) was red hot in the first half, shooting 7-for-14 from three. The Railsplitters’ rapid ball movement led to numerous open looks and Morgan Park wasn’t able to use its superior length to any advantage.
“We were down nine going to the locker room,” Irvin said. “I had to take my jacket off and roll my sleeves up. I knew my guys would come out and follow my lead.”
The hot shooting disappeared in the second half. Lincoln was 2-for-12 from three and Morgan Park owned a 32-21 rebounding advantage.
“For about 23 minutes we controlled the basketball game,” Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said. “Morgan Park was a great team that turned up the pressure.”
Walker found Cunningham for an alley-oop dunk with 4:46 to play. The explosive slam changed the tenor of the game for good and gave the Mustangs a 45-41 lead.
“That’s something we try and do every game,” Cunningham said. “[Walker] knows if he just throws it up I will go and get it.”
Cunningham led the way with 13 points and nine rebounds. Walker added 12 points and five steals and sophomore guard Charlie Moore scored 12. Sophomore Jarrin Randall added eight points, including two key three-pointers.
Dellan Whatley, a senior that plays sparingly, may have scored the two most important baskets for the Mustangs. The 5-10 senior came of the bench and scored consecutive buckets to close the third quarter and keep Morgan Park’s momentum alive.
“That was big time,” Irvin said. “We call him ‘roach.’ His time was today. He’s been going through a lot, his grandmother passed last week.”
This was Morgan Park’s third state title. Longtime coach Herb Ray guided the school to the Class AA championship in 2001.
Junior Gavin Block led Lincoln with 19 points, and Tyler Horchem and Edward Bowlby each scored eight.
“It’s on your senior leaders to take care of the ball and I didn’t do that tonight,” Lincoln senior Max Cook said.