Yorkville Christian senior K.J. Vasser holds the state championship trophy. (Photo: Chaqwonn Jones)
By Jakub Rudnik
CHAMPAIGN — Down 10-8 after the first quarter, Yorkville Christian was in uncharted territory.
The Mustangs had been untested in its run to the 2022 state title game. In order, its win differentials: 62, 44, 40, 44, 34, 38 and 43 points.
Coach Aaron Sovern made sure his team knew there was plenty of game left to be played.
“I said, ‘We can’t play a whole lot worse offensively, and I don’t know that they can play a whole lot better,'” Sovern said. “‘So we’re fine.’ I think I even said, ‘Take a deep breath, let’s go.'”
Liberty played Yorkville Christian tougher than any other team in the state series, but Yorkville won each of the next three quarters to earn the first state title in program history, 54-41.
The game was a defensive struggle early on. The teams combined to shoot 7-of-24 with six turnovers in the first quarter. They were a combined 17-of-48 and 6-of-21 from three in the first half as Liberty clung to a 21-20 lead.
Liberty keyed on Yorkville Christian senior shooting guard and Duke commit Jaden Schutt. He finished with 12 points on 4-or-12 shooting, just 1-of-6 from beyond the arc.
“We looked at film in the preseason, because we knew if we were getting to the championship game we’d be facing him,” Liberty senior forward Logan Robbins said. “I just tried to look for some points I could pick up on, just to try to maybe get a little edge.”
In the second half the Mustangs found their offense without Schutt. Senior guard K.J. Vasser attacked the basket, making 5-of-12 baskets overall and hitting all four of his free throws. He led the team with 15 points. Tyler Burrows hit 5-of-7 shots for 13 points. David Douglas Jr. scored 11.
Vasser was key early in the fourth during a Yorkville Christian run that broke the game open, with a pair of steals and seven points in the span of minutes.
“We went into halftime down one,” Schutt said. “When we play a lot of tough teams [during the season] we’re going to get down. I want to give a shoutout to K.J. [Vasser], just his leadership, keeping guys in it with his intensity. Him and Tyler [Burrows] just being great leaders out there.”
Yorkville Christian finished 25-13 after playing a brutal regular-season schedule filled with 4A and 3A opponents.
“It’s definitely been a grind, and definitely mission accomplished,” Sovern said. “As we’ve said forever, this was our goal at the beginning of the year. I can’t say enough about these guys, they definitely found a way.”
Liberty finished 30-6 for the season, advancing further and winning more games than any team in program history.
An emotional coach Greg Altmix paused for 10 seconds in the post-game press conference when answering a question on how proud he was of the team.
“Players who are willing to come out and play this way and do what you ask as a coach, they make my job easy,” Altmix said.
“Knowing that a couple of guys didn’t even have the chance to even take the court last season and seeing them come back,” Altmix continued. “You have young men who are going to be successful in life because they’ve learned a lot of life lessons through basketball.”