Playing for a sectional title for the first time in program history, Sycamore senior Ben Niemann wasn’t going to let his team go down without a fight in Friday’s Class 3A Hampshire Sectional title game against Rockford Lutheran.
With star senior Devin Mottet fouled out with 4:48 left and the Spartans down by six, Niemann took over.
The Iowa football recruit scored Sycamore’s last nine points, giving the Spartans a one-point lead with 43 seconds left. But Rockford Lutheran had a little more left in the tank. A lay-up from James Robinson with 22 seconds left gave the Crusaders the 59-57 win.
Sycamore’s dream season ends at 23-8.
“We weren’t going to give up,” Niemann said. “Devin is one of our best scorers, but with him on the bench, I just knew I had to attack and try to get us back in the game. That’s what I did. I didn’t want my high school career to be over. We just came up a little short.”
A 6-0 run early in the fourth quarter helped Lutheran (29-3) take a 49-43 lead. The lead was 55-48 when Niemann took over for Sycamore.
He went on a personal 9-1 run, mixing in two rebounds and a steal, to stun the Rockford Lutheran crowd that thought it had the game in hand and give Sycamore a 57-56 lead with 43 seconds left.
“He’s a big, strong kid,” Lutheran coach Tom Guse said. “When (Mottet) fouled out, we felt pretty good. That goes to show you; those kids over there care just as much as our kids. There was no quit in Sycamore. Fortunately, we were able to pull it out.”
The decisive bucket for the Crusaders worked out at planned. Thomas Kopelman drew a double-team and Robinson broke open on the back side for a wide-open lay-up with 22 seconds left.
On the other end, Niemann was forced to kick the ball out after Lutheran clamped down on him. But Sycamore got off two clean shots that just rimmed out, giving the ball back to Lutheran.
“We had two good looks at it,” Sycamore coach Andrew Stacy said. “I thought both of them were in, but they both rattled out. That’s the way it happens sometimes.”
Niemann led all scorers with 22 points for the Spartans. Mottet scored 13 and Cooper Vinz added 12 off the bench, all coming off three-pointers. Nate Wieting paced Rockford Lutheran with 16 points. Kopelman and Robinson each scored 15.
For Niemann and the rest of the seniors who played on the football team that reached the state semifinals, it capped a historic few months. It was the furthest either the football or basketball teams advanced in the postseason in school history.
“It’s a legacy that we leave behind,” Niemann said. “People are going to remember us for a long time. It’s a great way to go out.”