United Township upset hopes ran into a wall Tuesday night, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound wall.
An emphatic dunk midway through the fourth quarter by Normal West junior Francis Okoro ended a run of 10 unanswered points by the Panthers to help the eighth-ranked Wildcats finish off a 51-38 victory over UT in an Illinois Class 4A regional boys basketball semifinal at Rock Island Fieldhouse.
“Our fight, our grit, our character, it all came out in the fourth quarter,’’ United Township coach Ryan Webber said. “My guys, they didn’t quit and that’s the enjoyment in this for a coach.’’
The Panthers had cut an 18-point deficit late in the third quarter to 39-31 before Okoro slipped behind the UT defense for a rim-rocking slam that was part of a 16-point, 13-rebound performance by the power forward who is the top-rated prospect in Illinois’ junior class.
The dunk with 4 minutes, 13 seconds remaining was the final field goal the Wildcats would score, extending the lead to 41-31 against a United Township team that didn’t go away quietly.
Two free throws by Kyle Ellison inched UT within 41-33 but four missed shots on three empty possessions denied the Panthers a chance to cut deeper into the Normal West lead.
“We were doing what we hoped to do with our defense. We were turning them over, getting ourselves back into it,’’ Webber said. “But, a missed open three, a couple of lay-ups that wouldn’t drop, a missed free throw or two, they came at a time when we needed a score to really make things interesting.’’
The Panthers tried to work around Okoro, whose collection of scholarship offers stretches from Oregon to Kansas to Vanderbilt to Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern of the Big Ten, but the Wildcats’ big man came up big by scoring six of his game-high point total in the final quarter.
That included four free throws among the 9-of-10 hit by Normal West to pull away over the final 1:23, surviving a fourth quarter which saw the Wildcats turn the ball over seven times and hit just one of the six shots they attempted – Okoro’s dunk.
“We didn’t play particularly well down the stretch, and UT had a lot to do with that,’’ Normal West coach Brian Cupples said. “We were fortunate to have opened a lead early.’’
As the Panthers’ Ellison fronted Okoro and was joined by Jean Luc Wilson and Atem Agot in dealing with him down low, Normal West (22-7) extended a 15-10 lead midway through the second quarter when Malik Tucker came in off the bench and connected from three-point range on back-to-back possessions.
His scores fueled a 19-5 run that extended into the third quarter, when the Panthers’ comeback started with two of Delaney Little’s team-leading 12 points cut into a 34-15 deficit with 2:53 remaining in the quarter.
“The one thing we needed to do was to defend the three-point line and not letting (Shamar Grant, Little and Ellison) get going from there was big for us,’’ Cupples said. “Our defense helped get us that lead we needed.’’
Okoro’s effort was complemented by 10 points from Nate Duckworth while Wilson added nine to go with eight rebounds for United Township (14-16), which went just 14-of-42 from the field and was outrebounded 32-25.
“Overall, the effort was there. We just needed to hit a couple more shots,’’ Webber said. “If you’re going to upset a team like that, at some point you have to hit a few shots.’’