The Moline Maroon basketball story has been a study in steady improvement all season long under its first-year coach Sean Taylor.
Friday, that theme continued with the Maroons winning not only their eighth straight game but the United Township Class 4A regional, 57-50, over Ottawa.
It was clear from the long celebration afterward — the Maroon student body took to the court and showered the Maroons with cheers and hugs for a good 10 minutes — that the first regional title since 2011 was special.
“It means a lot,” said sophomore forward Deonte Billups, who scored 15 points and pulled down 12 rebounds.
He recalled how the Maroons weren’t that highly thought of after losing in stunning fashion to Rock Island at Wharton Field House back on Jan. 27.
“Nobody really believed in us, but we believed in ourselves and we showed them that we can compete,” he added.
Taylor got his 500th win earlier this season and came to Moline with a highly decorated resume that includes a state title, but he almost sounded like a coach winning his first regional afterward.
“It means a lot,” he said. “I have a special group. My coaching staff works so hard. It’s a great community. So to get one, it means a lot to me.”
Moline seemed to improve even within the game Friday, as it went from a one-point halftime lead after making just 10 of 24 shots and getting outrebounded 12-7 to leads as large as nine in the third quarter and 10 briefly in the fourth.
Moline (21-8) dominated the boards in the second half to the tune of 12 rebounds to 7 for Ottawa while making 10 of 16 shots from the field and 12 of 15 from the line.
Moline just pulled away steadily in the third quarter, scoring six straight on a bucket each from Brody Harding and Jeff McInnis and two foul shots from Billups to take a seven-point lead and gain control of the game.
In addition, the Maroons only had eight turnovers for the game. There was some impressive ballhandling in the fourth quarter when Moline milked the clock, sometimes with long but on target diagonal passes over the Ottawa defense.
An eight-point fourth-quarter run where five minutes disappeared quickly off the clock as the Maroons played keep-away boosted it to 10 at 48-38 with 1:19 left, and Moline fans could sense a regional title was soon to be theirs.
“I thought they guarded us pretty well,” said Ottawa coach Mark Cooper, whose team finished at 21-8. “Then we got it to 40-38, then we have a shot at the rim and we missed. Then Hurt comes down and hits a 3 to make it five (point lead).
“Then we have to chase them the last four minutes, that’s not a winning formula for us. They have multiple ballhandlers, they shoot free throws well and we’re not a pressing team.”
Moline was led by Nate Hurt, who scored 17 points, including 6 of 6 from the line in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’re still getting better,” Taylor said. “You see Jake Pittington is playing the best he’s played all year. Nate Hurt is such a great leader. Our sophomores (Harding, Billups, McInnis and the injured Drew Wiemers) are going to continue to get better.”
Pittington’s eight points in the first half that were an important factor.
“I just kept my head and kept working hard,” the senior said. “Coach did a good job of keeping me working hard. That’s what really did it.
“We were prepared. I was prepared. I came out and did that I could to help my team.”
Hurt also credited the team’s work ethic. But the best may be yet to come.
“I think everybody that’s playing is playing at their season best right now,” Taylor said.
Moline moves on to the Ottawa Sectional on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. game against Danville.
Ottawa returns to its town, which was hit with a tornado Tuesday, but also knowing Moline High School cares. Moline's Student Congress presented a check of $4,800 it raised in a few shot days. Cooper said it meant a lot.