ROCK ISLAND — If Kyle Murray ever needs a second job, maybe he could look into a career as a relaxation therapist.
Prior to Friday’s Western Big Six opener against United Township, the Alleman head boys’ basketball coach had to calm his players down inside the home locker room.
His relaxed Pioneers raced out to a 15-6 lead and went on to defeat UT 51-45 before a capacity crowd inside Don Morris Gym.
“Would you believe me if I told you that I told them to relax a little bit?” asked Murray. “Really, I thought the team that relaxed first was going to win the game. We were really, really fired up.”
Alleman entered Friday’s contest with a perfect 5-0 non-conference record but was facing its first real test of the season against a UT squad it hadn’t beaten since 2009.
“It’s definitely a great win,” said Murray, who is in his first season as head coach of the Pioneers. “I want to change the attitude here. We expect to win. When we show up every night, we’re here to win.”
Saurabh Patwal, who scored a game-high 16 points to lead Alleman (6-0, 1-0 Big Six), hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter. Meanwhile, the Panthers hit just three of their 12 shots from the field in the opening period while turning the ball over six times.
“I think we were too amped up and too jacked up,” UT head coach Ryan Webber said. “We had so many balls ricochet off our hands. Passes, dribbles, rebounds. It took us a long time to get settled down.”
The Panthers (3-2, 0-1 Big Six) eventually found their groove and began chipping away at the Alleman lead. UT cut the lead to 25-20 by halftime, and then took its first lead of the game when Kyle Ellison fed Jesse Desilva for a layup with 3:32 left in the third quarter. The visitors led 37-35 heading into the fourth.
But the Panthers missed their first five shots to start the final period, and Alleman built a six-point lead.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to win in the fourth quarter,” Webber said. “We were up two going into the fourth quarter, but we didn’t get a stop. We gave up a 3-pointer to start the third quarter, and we were stuck on 37 from there.”
UT desperately tried to chip away in the game’s final minutes, but the Pioneers went 8-for-8 from the foul line down the stretch to salt away the victory. Andrew Barrett calmly knocked down six of those free throws.
“They were probably some of the biggest free throws of my career,” said Barrett, who finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds. “We practice that all week, who’s going to want to take the last shot and who’s going to want to be at the free-throw line. I thought I was the guy who wanted to be there, and I wanted the ball.”
Shamar Grant had 12 points to lead UT, and he hit two key go-ahead jumpers late in the third quarter when the two teams were trading the lead. Reserve Atem Agot added 10 points.
Once the final buzzer sounded, Alleman students rushed the floor to celebrate a key early-season victory for the Pioneers.
“It’s a huge win,” Barrett said. “It just helps us the rest of the way heading into the conference.”