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By MIKE SANDROLINI
OAK PARK | The Pirates started out the 2016-17 season 1-7—a record, of course, that’s uncharacteristic of a Proviso East boys basketball team which is used to success year in and year out. However, East has experienced a turnaround the past two weeks that head coach Donnie Boyce believes will continue throughout the second half of the season.
It began at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. The Pirates didn’t fare well in their tourney opener, bowing to Hillcrest, 74-57. But they hung on to defeat Von Steuben the next day (64-63)—a victory which catapulted them to wins over St. Joseph and then Downers Grove North for the consolation championship.
The Pirates visited Fenwick last Saturday evening in their first contest of the new year since concluding play at Proviso West. Even though their record slipped to 4-8 following a 69-62 loss to the Friars, the Pirates overcame a sluggish first half and made the Friars sweat in the fourth quarter.
Thanks to timely shooting and in-your-face defense, East rattled Fenwick and came within two points of the Friars—the No. 17 team in this week’s Sun-Times Super 25 basketball rankings—twice during the final 3:06 of the game. The last time was 64-62 with just over a minute to go after a three-pointer from Quinlan Bennett (15 points). The Pirates had a chance to tie it with 46.5 seconds remaining, but couldn’t convert a pair of free throws.
“I think the first half we came out lackadaisical,” Boyce said. “We didn’t match their intensity, but I really like the way we responded at halftime. Besides me jumping on the kids (at halftime), I think our kids started to realize the effort. I really believe their desire to win really showed in the second half. That’s what we hang our hats on here—defense. I really like the way they responded. There were some adverse moments, a 50/50 call that could have went either way. Our kids were able to keep their emotions in check and responded well.”
Senior Tyler Chisom exploded for 15 of his team-high 21 points during the second half—10 in the final period as the Pirates overcame a nine-point deficit (50-41) heading into the quarter. “Our coach gave us a big speech (at halftime), and our leadership in the locker room came forward,” Chisom said.
“I spoke up to my team and said we’ve got to play hard and have everybody bring it all in.”
Boyce credited Chisom as one of the Pirates who stepped up as a senior leader when they were still in the middle of their losing skid.
“At some point as a team, you have to get tired of losing,” Boyce said.
“As a group, I thought Tyler Chisom stepped up and showed some senior leadership as well as Jaelon Hood and Quinlan Bennett (both juniors) just in terms of getting on the same page with the coaching staff. The good thing was when we kept losing, we could have put our heads down. I really think that win against Von Steuben was probably the key for us to kind of start resembling a Proviso East team.”
Another factor contributing to the Pirates’ turnaround is that Boyce returned to, well, being Donnie Boyce.
“(It was) me getting familiar with the kids, and the kids getting familiar with my coaching style, and to be quite honest, I don’t think as a coaching staff we did a good enough job of preparing the guys before the season,” Boyce said. “With me coming back (last February after being reinstated), I kind of was lax on the rules a little bit just in terms of the expectations because I wanted the kids to follow my lead and get to know me. Instead, I just should have stayed true to who I am—a strong disciplinarian. But that’s a lesson learned; we’re still learning things.”
“He’s leading us down the right path and we’re starting to follow him and progressing,” Chisom added. “Our team is really young, and so everybody had to get some experience and figure things out. Now I think we’ve got on a roll, even though we played slow the first half (against Fenwick), but you saw the second half. We started to come back as a team.”
Jordan Morris, a 6-5 junior, chipped in with seven points and seven rebounds vs. Fenwick. The Pirates resume action in the West Suburban Gold on Friday at 6 p.m. at home against Addison Trail (their only game this week). East (0-2) will be seeking its first conference victory. Last month, the Pirates lost to WSG foes Willowbrook and Downers South.
“Obviously the wins and losses to our standard is not acceptable, but I do believe we’re headed in the right direction,” Boyce said. “We still want to win conference which is something that’s still attainable. And then in the playoffs it’s a whole new season. The main goal is to be ready for March.”