Rockford Lutheran edges E-Rabs in East summer league, looks like state title contender

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Rockford Lutheran's Garrett Bertrand sinks a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat East, 61-58, in the championship game of the East Summer League at East High School Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Rockford.

ROCKFORD — No Rockford-area school has won a state boys basketball title in 65 years. Rockford Lutheran’s chance was wiped out by COVID-19 regulations last year.

Or maybe just delayed.

The Crusaders finished 16-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 2A in a year with no playoffs last season. But they made a big statement Tuesday by beating defending NIC-10 champion East 61-58 on Garrett Bertrand’s NBA-length 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the 16-team East Summer League title.

“In 2A, I expect them to make a really deep run,” East coach Roy Sackmaster said.

“All I am dreaming about is the state title,” Bertrand, a 6-foot-2 senior, said. “I think this is the year. I am giving it all of my effort and a lot of the guys are. I really think we can win it all.”

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Lutheran has terrific size for a team in the second-smallest of the state’s four classes, led by 6-6 Mike Jones and 6-5 Donavyn Sayles, who are as strong as they are tall.

“I love having Mike and Donny in the game,” Bertrand said. “I couldn’t have had the game I had tonight if not for Mike. He got going early and they collapsed on him. That left me open.”

Jones powered Lutheran to an early 13-2 lead. But Jefferson transfer Jemere Jefferson shot East back into the game by scoring all 18 of his points on 3-pointers. Most of them came from NBA range and he missed only twice.

“Every time he caught it, I was scared, and I had every right to feel that way,” Lutheran coach Tom Guse said. “Man, can he shoot.”

Jefferson rarely shot in the second half, but he twice tied the game late with long 3s, the first at 53-all and then again at 58-all with 49 seconds left, seconds after Lutheran had take the lead with a 3.

“When he hit two shots like that, that’s a punch,” Bertrand said. “That’s hard to come back from. But we just kept our heads high and said one more stop and a score and we win. And that’s what we did.”

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That’s what Bertrand did. He had already kept Lutheran in the game late by scoring six straight Crusader points in a variety of ways, on two free throws, a contested layup inside and an off-balance jumper in the lane to make it 55-53. And then his final long 3 to win it.

“I’ve worked on my game to make it a complete game,” Bertrand said. “I am trying to be consistent this year, and you can only do that by being able to score from all three levels. So, yeah, I feel comfortable scoring from everywhere.”

Guse called timeout with 20 seconds left and drew up three different options for the winning basket. All three options had Bertrand taking that final shot.

So did the desperation fourth option.

“He was the hot hand and he had a look in his eye that he did not want to lose, so all three options were for him,” Guse said. “Then it got blown up and we had the ball with two seconds left. Just throw the ball to Garrett somehow and see what he can do. And he hits a fadeaway from 30 feet.”

“It’s so fun,” Bertrand said, “being in these big-time moments. That’s what I want to be in.”

Rockford Lutheran's Garrett Bertrand is congratulated by his teammates after his 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat East, 61-58, in the championship game of the East Summer League at East High School Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Rockford.

Wait a few months. From all indications, the Crusaders have many more big-time moments in their near future.

“It hurt,” sophomore center Jones said of not having any playoffs last year. “But I feel like we’re ready now. We can win state. We’re ready to make noise.”

The NIC-10 could have a noisy season, too. Before East lost the title game at the buzzer to Lutheran, the E-Rabs edged Harlem 55-54 in a sudden-death, double-overtime semifinal Tuesday. Overtime in the summer league is only one minute, with the first team to score winning after that.

“I think there are going to be a lot of games like this,” East coach Roy Sackmaster said. “There should be a multiple-loss winner of the conference, like it was a couple of years ago. There is a lot of parity.”

Harlem finished second to East last year in one of its best seasons ever and returns its two best players in DeAndre Young and Lathan Lewis.

“We’re going to be conference champs,” Young said. “We have a really good team and a lot of good players.”

So does East, which is fortified by Jefferson transfers Jemere Jefferson and Rashard Young, who live in the East district but had been attending Jefferson to take classes they couldn’t get at East.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have them,” Sackmaster said. “They have blended in well with our team and the No. 1 thing is they are high-character kids.”

Both Jefferson and Young were among East’s leading scorers in its two games Tuesday. And Jefferson did his scoring when East needed it most. He had a team-high 13 points in the overtime thriller against Harlem, including 10 in the last six minutes with an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime.

“I’ve gotten much better,” Jefferson said. “I’ve been practicing all summer and I got way more comfortable with my shot. I’m a senior now. It is time for me to take over.”

Matt Trowbridge:; @matttrowbridge