- Scott Powers, Reporter
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PEORIA, Ill. -- North Chicago’s JaVairius Amos-Mays was already tearing up when he approached the bench and sat beside fellow sophomore Kurt Hall in the final seconds of the Class 3A state championship on Saturday.
Hall was feeling the same crushing emotions and threw his left arm around Amos-Mays to comfort him. It was a picture of disappointment, but also of hope for North Chicago.
While North Chicago fell short of its goal, losing 72-64 to Peoria Central in the state championship on Saturday, the Warhawks had also been to consecutive state tournament appearances. Their two star sophomores, who had combined for 28 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in the title game, cared as much as anyone about not reaching their ultimate goal.
North Chicago senior Aaron Simpson, who will go down as one of the school’s all-time greats, was comfortable with whom he was leaving the program to.
“They know what they have to do,” said Simpson, who will continue his career at Illinois State. “They know what coach expects of them. I think they’ll take care of it.”
Simpson did his part in his career to elevate North Chicago. North Chicago won four regional titles, three sectionals, two super-sectionals and finished second and fourth at state in Simpson’s four years. The Warhawks had never placed in state before Simpson arrived. He also averaged 23 points as a junior and 26 points as a senior.
“We’re going to miss Aaron,” North Chicago coach Gerald Coleman said. “It’s a sad day for me to have such a player like Simpson for four years. I’ve been waiting on him since sixth grade. To just coach him for four years is really awesome.
“I don’t see another player coming right now who is capable of playing like Simpson. It’s like when he’s on the floor I know we have 25 points before the tip-off.”
Simpson ended up right at his average of 26 points in Saturday’s loss, but it wasn’t enough against Peoria Central (28-3).
North Chicago (25-7) actually led Peoria Central 18-16 after one quarter. But the second quarter was a different story, and it would be that quarter that would eventually decide the game.
The Warhawks extended their lead to 24-19 with an offensive putback by Amos-Mays with 5:25 left in the quarter. From there, it was all Peoria Central.
North Chicago’s shots stopped falling, and Peoria Central’s continued. The Lions went on a 20-7 run and were 8 of 15 from the field, 2 for 6 from 3-point range and 6 of 9 from the free-throw line in the quarter. North Chicago was 5 of 15 from the field.
Peoria Central never ran away with the game in the second half, but it kept North Chicago at a comfortable distance. As the final seconds ran off the clock, Peoria Central’s Jerrell White launched the ball into the air, and the city of Peoria celebrated its first championship since 2004.
“It’s a great day for our program, for our school, for the city,” Peoria Central coach Dan Ruffin said. “We had a new slogan this year, ‘Pride of Peoria,’ and I think today we lived up to that slogan.”
Peoria senior Aldonis Foote especially gave the large Peoria crowd something to cheer about Saturday. He acted as a one-man highlight film. On consecutive possessions in the first quarter, he threw down a one-handed alley-oop dunk off an inbound pass and then put home another alley-oop while being fouled. In between the dunks, he blocked a North Chicago 3-pointer attempt six rows deep into the crowd.
“I didn’t know he could do it,” Simpson said. “It surprised us.”
Foote led Peoria Central with a team-high 17 points. Trey Kellum (14 points, 15 rebounds) and White (13 points) also contributed in the win.
Amos-Mays (17 points, eight rebounds, two steals) and Hall (11 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) contributed with Simpson.
“To put it in a nutshell, there would be plenty of teams who would want to be in second place,” Coleman said. “It was great for our community. It was great for our county. We’re representing very well in Peoria.”
• Hillcrest defeated Springfield Lanphier 72-67 in the third-place game. Jayon’e Troutman (15 points), Jalen Loving (15 points, 13 rebounds), Brent Buchanan (15 points) and Jovan Mooring (12 points) led Hillcrest (25-6). Sophomore Larry Austin had a team-high 16 points for Lanphier (28-5).
Aaron Simpson will leave North Chicago's future to capable replacements.