Loyola and Maine South each ended the regular season in much different ways.
The Ramblers lost six of their last nine games, while the Hawks entered the state tournament on a nine-game winning streak.
A mitigating factor for Loyola was the absence of senior captain Connor Barrett, who sat out those nine games with a broken right foot. But he returned to the court Tuesday and was instrumental in the team’s 63-43 win over Rolling Meadows in the Class 4A regional semifinals at Rolling Meadows.
Coupled with Maine South’s 51-41 win over Hoffman Estates, the Hawks (23-9) and the Ramblers (20-12) will meet Friday in a regional final for the second consecutive season. A year ago, Loyola beat Maine South 48-29 to earn its second regional title in a row.
“Maine South is playing really well, and I’m sure confident, as they should be,” Loyola head coach Tom Livatino said. “But we are feeling good and in a good place. It’s going to be a challenge, but we are ready to compete.”
The Hawks, who are the No. 3 seed at Niles North’s sectional, are headlined by senior guards Daniel Crane, Fillip Bulatovic and Essam Hamwi.
The 6-foot-5 Bulatovic averages a team-best in both points (16.5) and rebounds (6.3). A three-year varsity veteran, the 6-1 Hamwi averages 13.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals. He leads Maine South with 76 3-pointers, shooting 36.0 from behind the arc. The 6-3 Crane averages 9.0 points and 5.4 rebounds.
“They have a formidable front line and have three guys who can score,” Livatino said. “They are a good offensive rebounding team and are good in transition. Their matchup zone is hard to score against, and they play physical. A big thing is they don’t beat themselves.”
Without question, getting Barrett back was a big boost for the Ramblers. Loyola’s leading scorer and best outside shooter responded by making all five of his 3s and finished with 15 points Tuesday.
Livatino said 6-8 junior Bennett Kwiecinski will be an important part of the team’s game plan. He averages 11.0 points and 5.1 rebounds to go with 26 steals and 25 blocks.
“He continues to improve, and we are going to need him to play great,” Livatino said. “That goes for everybody, too. To win this game we need all hands on deck.”
Other stat leaders for the Ramblers include senior Quinn Pemberton, who leads the team in assists (102) and steals (28). Junior Matty Enghauser is first with 18 charges and averages 6.2 points.
“This is a big game for us, especially our seniors,” Livatino said. “They want to leave a legacy on the court.”