PEORIA — Right from the opening tip Friday, the Annawan boys' basketball team played with a purpose and a focus that surpassed even its best efforts during a memorable postseason run.
Apart from a brief shaky stretch in the fourth quarter of Friday's Class 1A state tournament semifinal matchup against Sterling Newman, the Braves never let that sense of purpose slip. Never trailing from the start to the finish, Annawan will now get to play for its first state championship after topping the Comets 59-44 at Carver Arena.
"This was a great team win for us," said Annawan coach Alex Coppejans, whose club takes a 31-3 record into today's 12:45 p.m. title tilt at the Peoria Civic Center against 2017 state runner-up Okawville (26-8). "Today, we felt like we have been for the last couple of weeks, that anyone who steps into the game for us trusts and believes in one another. Everyone did their job to the best of their ability."
While the Braves' All-State senior duo of point guard Owen Landwehr (19 points, six rebounds) and forward Ben Buresh (12 points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots) performed their standard stellar job, it was two of their classmates who helped Annawan gain the upper hand in the third quarter after building a 26-18 halftime lead.
Forward Dante Weathersby scored four of his six points in that period, and guard Brendon Shaw hit three straight baskets to put the Braves up by 13 points before taking a 43-32 advantage into the final eight minutes. Shaw scored six of his 13 points in the third quarter.
"Coach Copp told us that they're not going to play us (individually), they're going to play the ball," said Shaw. "We knew if attacked the gaps, their defense would commit to the ball and leave us with open gaps. There's always no doubt with us that whoever steps out on the floor is going to contribute."
Added Weathersby: "We knew they were going to play Ben and Owen harder. When that happens, it's up to us to take our opportunities and score when we can. We were able to pick up the pieces."
Buckets by Shaw and Buresh, followed by a pair of Buresh free throws, gave the Braves their biggest lead of the day at 51-35 early in the fourth quarter. However, the Comets (28-5) were not out of it yet, gradually battling back to within 52-43 on a Travis Williams three-point play with 2:18 left in the game.
With the ball after an Annawan turnover, Newman's momentum was halted when a Brycen Bartel 3-point attempt rimmed in and out, and 6-foot-7 sophomore Devon House missed a putback attempt from close range. The Braves proceeded to score five straight points to effectively secure the win.
"We got it down to nine, then we had a stretch with the ball back, and we had confidence," said House, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
While the Comets enjoyed that fleeting feeling of confidence in their late rally attempt, Annawan had it by the ton right from the outset, when it won the opening tip and quickly got on the scoreboard with a Landwehr 3-pointer.
"We were ready, and excited for this opportunity, playing for a chance at the championship game," Landwehr stated. "We wanted to come out and take it right to them."
Annawan led by nine at one point after sophomore reserve Julian Samuels buried a trey with seven seconds on the clock. Newman closed it to 15-9 on Cade Gorzny's buzzer-beating trey, and Gorzny forged a 16-16 tie midway through the second period. However, the Comets could never gain a lead.
"They were ball-hawking us the whole game," said Gorzny. "It was hard for us to get open shots."
Meantime, Annawan made the most of its opportunities. Two games after shooting 67 percent in their 63-54 sectional-final win over Aurora Christian, the Braves hit 18 of 29 shots on Friday, a 62.1 percent clip.
"It comes down to doing the little things, and doing them right," said Buresh. "We all have a lot of trust in each other."
That trust has carried the Braves to the within one win of becoming just the second Illinois Quad-Cities area boys' basketball team to win a state title. A win today, and Annawan joins the 2011 Class 3A champion Rock Island Rocks in that exclusive club.
"We've got to rest, and stay focused on the task at hand," said Landwehr. "We're going to take (today) as another game, stay focused and come out with a lot of excitement."