MARSEILLES, Ill. — The last time Annawan won a boys' basketball sectional title in 2009, the Braves took down Class 1A's top-ranked team to achieve that feat.
The leading scorer for the Braves that night against South Beloit was then-senior forward Alex Coppejans, now his alma mater's head coach. Friday night in the 1A Ottawa Marquette Sectional finals, Coppejans experienced a strong feeling of deja vu as his club topped No. 1 Aurora Christian, 63-54 before a packed house of more than 1,800.
"Our guys were locked in and focused right from the get-go," said a beaming Coppejans, with the state's fourth-ranked squad matching last year's single-season victory record with its 29th win in 32 games. Most importantly, Friday's win sends the Braves on to Tuesday's Normal Super-Sectional to take on seventh-rated Colfax Ridgeview (28-4) in the state's Elite Eight.
"Ever since we won this past Tuesday to get here, the guys have taken everything in stride and have taken nothing for granted. That was the big thing tonight, keeping that focus for four quarters and wearing them down. I'm so proud of all of our kids."
Annawan set the tone right from the opening tip, with Brendon Shaw hitting a quick 3-pointer just 37 seconds in. With fellow senior Ben Buresh getting his outside-shooting groove on, the Braves would end up leading from Shaw's first bucket right to the final buzzer.
Buresh knocked down four 3-pointers in five attempts to help Annawan lead by as much as 12 points and take a 19-12 advantage after one. The 6-foot-3 senior forward ended up draining five of his seven trey attempts, leading all scorers with 26 points and adding nine rebounds.
"We knew he could do it," Coppejans said. "We just put the ball in his hands and let him make plays. He's been with us for four years, and he's earned every opportunity he's had. He did an awesome job."
Although his hot hand sparked the Braves early on, Buresh was quick to give credit to his four fellow senior starters — Owen Landwehr (15 points, eight rebounds, three steals), Shaw (11 points), Jacob Wolf (nine points) and Dante Weathersby.
"Senior leadership showed up tonight," he said. "Five senior starters, and we came out and played our hearts out. We were ready. The underclassmen coming off the bench, they were ready. Tonight was an amazing feeling. An amazing team, and an amazing coaching staff."
Aurora Christian tried to respond, closing the gap to one before a pair of Landwehr buckets and a Shaw basket with 40 seconds left in the second quarter put Annawan up 26-21 at halftime. The Eagles kept nipping at the Braves' heels for most of the third, but a Shaw 3-ball, a Buresh three-point play with under a minute left and then a Buresh trey with 17 seconds left widened the lead to 43-35 entering the final period.
"This is the game we've been looking for ever since we lost to them last year (50-47 in the sectional semifinals)," said Buresh, whose club also lost to Aurora Christian at the State Farm Holiday Classic. "All of our games this season have prepared us for this one. We didn't want to fall short tonight."
Building a double-figure lead early in the fourth quarter, Annawan made sure it would not fall short in achieving a goal it has worked towards for the last several years.
"They were the No. 1 team in the state, and we beat them," said Landwehr. "The sky's the limit for us now."