By: Eric Van Dril | March 18, 2017
Top-end talent can sometimes mask the ability of a coach, and Nick Irvin has had plenty of it during his nine seasons at Morgan Park.
But the Mustangs’ 69-67 overtime win over Fenwick in the Class 3A state championship showed why Irvin is one of the state’s best.
Morgan Park was without star point guard Ayo Dosunmu, who fractured a bone in his left foot in the first quarter of Morgan Park’s state semifinal. He was on crutches on Saturday, March 18.
The Mustangs’ players never doubted themselves, however. They always believed they would win — even when the Friars led by 11 points with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
“It starts with Nick,” Morgan Park senior forward Melo Burrell (nine points, 10 rebounds) said, of the team’s confidence level.
Morgan Park sophomore guard Lamond Johnson agreed.
Irvin gives his players “confidence you didn’t even know you had,” Johnson said. “He keeps you going. If he puts you down, you know you’re going to get back up because once he puts you down, he’s going to build you up 10 times (higher) than (you were). He’s a great coach. He gives you the most confidence in the world.”
Morgan Park’s confidence was crucial in several different instances in the state championship game, but it especially showed in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter and in overtime.
Morgan Park (26-6) trailed by 11 points with 5:39 left in regulation.
Out of a TV timeout, point guard Marcus Watson — a freshman playing in just his fifth varsity game — blew by his man and kicked the ball out to freshman guard Nimari Burnett (24 points) on the wing.
Burnett didn’t hesitate. He caught Watson’s pass, loaded and fired. His 3-pointer hit nothing but net.
Burnett and Watson are both just freshman, but Irvin had them on the court together in a do-or-die moment of the Mustangs’ season.
“Nobody expected him to play two freshmen at the same time. He didn’t know what they would do, but he had faith in them,” Johnson said. “And they had the confidence in themselves because they knew he trusted in them. It really came from him.”
Burnett (24 points) and Watson came up huge in the fourth quarter and in overtime. Watson hit a pair of clutch free throws to put the Mustangs ahead 55-54 with 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Fenwick junior forward Mike O’Laughlin followed by splitting a pair of free throws, and the game went to overtime.
Burnett hit three 3-pointers in the four-minute overtime. Two were from the wing, and the third was from the corner with 26 seconds remaining.
Fenwick trailed by two points at that point. It appeared that Morgan Park would pass the ball around the perimeter and force Fenwick to foul. But Burnett was on fire. He caught the ball in the corner and didn’t think twice. He was open, so he fired.
After the game, Irvin applauded Burnett’s aggression. He didn’t want him to milk the clock.
“He had it rolling, and I knew if he made it, it would probably be the dagger for them,” Irvin said. “That’s how we play. It’s been a crazy weekend anyway, why not take it? (Burnett) loves the moment. He loves to take (big) shots.”
Burnett hit monstrous shots throughout his freshman season. Burrell called him “cold-blooded.”
Burnett has said repeatedly that he loves big moments, and no moment is bigger for a high-school basketball player than the state championship game. Plus, Irvin has empowered Burnett to take huge shots.
“He told me to be patient throughout the season, and just believe in what I can do,” Burnett said, of Irvin. “He just wanted me to be the best I could be. He was like, ‘Do it for your legacy. Do it so people remember you as one of the best,’ and that’s what I did.”
Irvin explained his approach further.
“Me being a player and a coach, my father (Mac Irvin) always told me, ‘Motivate, motivate, motivate,’” Irvin said. “That’s what I try to do. I don’t put a restriction on any of my players. I just let them go play basketball and figure it out. That’s the only way you’re going to learn. That’s how I learned (as a player).”
Irvin has won three state championships in his nine-year tenure at Morgan Park, but he said this season is his best to date as a coach.
“The last state championships I won, we were supposed to (win),” Irvin said, of his titles in 2013 and 2014. “I had a feeling we would do it. But with this team, it took hard work. It took dedication and it took me changing my styles up a little bit to get us to this point.”
Irvin and his coaching staff made two significant adjustments during the season.
The first was Morgan Park’s preferred style of play. The Mustangs shifted from an up-tempo, run-and-gun approach to a more-deliberate pace. Doing so better suited the height on their roster.
The other adjustment came in late December.
Morgan Park lost to Whitney Young in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament championship game. The Dolphins made sure that Dosunmu wouldn’t beat them that night. They had their best defender, senior guard Craig Beaudion, defend Dosunmu, and a second player blitzed Dosunmu when he came off of every screen.
Dosunmu scored eight points that night. Morgan Park lost 80-71.
“That’s their ball club,” Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said that evening. “As Ayo goes, they go.”
Irvin adjusted after that loss.
“I told (my team), ‘We can’t win with one player getting 40 points,’” Irvin said. “I told Ayo he was going to have to sacrifice a few of his points. He (did). He started getting close to triple-doubles. He started rebounding more and facilitating more. And then six people started scoring in double-figures. And then it was like, ‘Dang, this really works.’ That’s what I did. I had to give a reality check to myself and say, ‘It’s not a one-man show. It’s everybody. You can’t key in on one person.’”
The Mustangs’ change in tactics led to a Red-South championship — Irvin’s first at Morgan Park — and a second-place finish in the city tournament.
It was also a crucial piece of why Morgan Park beat Fenwick without Dosunmu.
Other players were accustomed to doing much more, including: playmaking, scoring and stepping up in big moments.
The Mustangs weren’t lost without Dosunmu.
“We all rebounded, scored the ball. We just played together as a team,” Burnett said. “This (game against Fenwick) is the best we played all season, to me. You knew there were going to be a couple of mistakes — turnovers, stuff like that — but we just came together as a team. We did not give up. We were down 11. We just kept going, kept fighting.”
Irvin added: “A lot of people doubted us, and a lot of people thought we couldn’t get to this point. A lot of people doubted us once Ayo went down.”
Irvin never did, however. His belief in his players proved to be a crucial element in Morgan Park overcoming the loss of its best player and leaving Peoria with a state championship.