Kevin Kozan leads way for ProvidenceProvidence Catholic's #35 Kevin Kozan drives to the basket in front of Lemont's #42 Jake Terrazas held at Providence High School 3A Regional boys hoops final and Providence won 63-53 on Friday, March 02, 2012. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 5, 2012 6:56PM
Against the backdrop of a packed, spirited gymnasium, Providence was getting the ball inside to 6-foot-8 senior Mike Marietti and opened a 39-23 halftime lead against Lemont in Friday’s championship game of the Class 3A Providence Regional.
But “about seven or eight” members of the Celtics, in the estimation of coach Tim Trendel, had the opportunity a week earlier to attend highly regarded Hillcrest’s game at Lemont. In that one, the Indians trailed 40-26 at half. But a 13-0 run early in the third quarter closed the gap, and Lemont earned a 58-57 victory and a share of the South Suburban Blue championship.
Celtics junior point guard Kevin Kozan would not allow his teammates to forget what they saw.
“Kevin got up in the locker room at halftime tonight and told the guys, ‘Remember the Hillcrest game,’ ” Trendel said. “They were up 14, so we knew Lemont was going to come at us.”
Kozan talked the talked and he walked the walk. Trendel said it adds up to a true leader.
In the fourth quarter alone, after Lemont had outscored Providence 16-4 in the third to get back within to 43-39, Kozan made seven straight free throws and scored 12 of his game-high 23 points.
He put Providence ahead 50-48 with a 15-footer with 4:33 left. His three-pointer from the top of the key with 3:51 left made it 53-50 and began a 12-1 run that lifted the Celtics (17-10), the No. 5 seed in the Rich East Sectional, to a 63-53 victory and a berth in Tuesday night’s semifinal against No. 1 seed Hillcrest.
Critics may point out Kozan took a few ill-advised three-point shots, especially late in the game, but there is no disputing his overall contribution.
“Our offense starts with our point guard,” Trendel said. “Kevin got tired guarding (Juozas) Balciunas, but he did an outstanding defensive job. He played all 32 minutes, and for 28 minutes he played as well as anyone could on him.
“And Miles (Boykin, the freshman who relieved Kozan in hounding Balciunas down the stretch) has the length to bother his shot.”
Balciunas finished with 20 points, eight in the fourth quarter. He left over the weekend to join the U19 Lithuanian National Team in a two-week tournament in China, after which he will return to Lemont.
Balciunas is one of the better point guards in the area, if not the best. Kozan stepped up on the big stage and showed he belongs in that discussion.
“Kevin proved once again that he is one of the better players in the area,” Trendel said. “He missed player of the year in our division of the conference (Catholic League South) by one point.
“His leadership, the free throws he made down the stretch, that’s what we look for from him.”
Kozan’s presence allowed Providence to play at Lemont’s tempo, something that bothered the Celtics in a 70-65 loss Jan. 24 at Lemont in a game that was not that close.
“Give them credit,” Lemont coach Rick Runaas said. “They played at a better tempo than the first time. We wanted to push the tempo and they preferred to slow it down a little. But they were able to play at a tempo we weren’t sure they could play at.”
Marietti, the big man who complements Kozan so well, finished with 17 points and was much more of a factor than in the first meeting.
“He exerted his will more this time,” Runaas said.
Trendel knows what Providence is up against in Hillcrest, but his Celtics are ready to get after it.
“Hillcrest is good, but every team at this time is good,” he said. “This is the fun part. All the pressure is on Hillcrest as the No. 1 seed. We can go out there and play and see what happens.”
Plainfield East alive
The only other area team alive is Plainfield East (27-1), which escaped Neuqua Valley 47-45 in the championship game of the Class 4A Neuqua Valley Regional. The Bengals, the No. 1 seed, will meet No. 4 West Aurora in Tuesday night’s semifinal at East Aurora.
Neuqua figured to be tough on its floor, but East prevailed because of defense, which is nothing new. With the way coach Branden Adkins’ team pressures opponents and can stifle the opposition’s big guns, East will be difficult for anyone to eliminate.
West Aurora, incidentally, beat Joliet West 50-46 in the consolation semifinals at Pontiac and beat Lockport 69-67 in two overtimes Jan. 14.
Joliet Junior College
Another good season for Joliet Junior College and coach Joe Kuhn is in the books. The Wolves, bidding to return to the NJCAA Division III National Tournament, reached the Region IV title game for the 13th straight season Sunday but fell to Milwaukee 87-85 after missing a three-point try as the buzzer sounded.