Relaxing in the bleachers after scoring 32 points to lead Rock Island to a wild 79-76 double overtime win Wednesday, only one thing was on the mind of the Rocks’ JaMir Price.
"We get to play again. That’s all that matters this time of year, keep playing," Price said after Rock Island sent seventh-rated Bloomington to the sidelines in an Illinois Class 4A regional semifinal at Rock Island Fieldhouse.
"We knew it would be a physical game, a tough game, and we came out as a team ready to do whatever it took to win, and we got it done together."
Price pushed the Rocks ahead for good, slipping past hard-charging Purple Raiders forward Chris Payton to finish off his 14-of-18 game from the field on a drive and a lay-in that put Rock Island in front 77-76 with 31 seconds remaining.
The Rocks’ Jayden Tucker picked off passes to deny Bloomington a look at the basket on its next two possessions, hitting two free throws with :05 to play to give Rock Island its winning margin after being fouled after his second steal.
Randy Tucker intercepted a long inbounds pass that followed, securing a spot in Friday’s 7 p.m. regional final at Rock Island against seventh-rated Normal West (22-7).
"This sectional is pretty much a gauntlet. A big win here over a great team, and now one day to get ready for another great team," Rocks coach Thom Sigel said. "But I’m awfully proud of this effort. Our transition defense wasn’t much too look at, but they had a lot to do with that."
Bloomington was led by 22 points and 15 rebounds from Payton, a 6-foot-6 junior who committed to Illinois State last summer but has since re-opened his recruitment and now counts Illinois among his scholarship offers.
He scored the Purple Raiders’ first 10 points of the fourth quarter as they worked to hold off the Rocks, who had taken a 51-50 lead into the final quarter of regulation on a 3-pointer by Randy Tucker.
"The game went back and forth, but we stayed with the plan, and when they made a run, we kept fighting and made one in return," said Randy Tucker, who scored 15 of his 24 points after halftime.
In a game that saw 17 second-half lead changes, the Rocks’ fight extended into the final overtime after a 3-point basket by Donzell Johnson had given the Purple Raiders a 72-69 lead with 3:34 left.
A basket by Ben Ellis, who finished with 15, followed by four straight free throws by Randy Tucker and Ellis rallied the Rocks (17-11) to a 75-72 advantage with 1:52 to play.
Patrick Fisher and Chris Pugh answered with scores to put Bloomington in front 76-75 before Price made his game-deciding drive down the left side of the lane.
"All I saw was the basket," Price said. "We couldn’t lose this game. I had to get there, and I did."
Rock Island overcame an early deficit as a trio of first-quarter line drive 3s from Fisher gave Bloomington a lead as large as nine points before the Rocks used eight second-quarter points by Price to pull within 34-30 by halftime.
The rest of the game, neither team managed a lead larger than the 56-51 advantage the Purple Raiders took on a Payton basket with 6:04 left in the fourth. Price answered quickly with a pair of scores to pull the Rocks within one.
That’s where things stood when Payton stole the ball in the final minute of regulation with Bloomington leading 62-61, but the junior blew a breakaway dunk opportunity, and Rock Island eventually forced overtime, tying the game 62-62 when Ellis hit the first of two free throws with :36 to play in regulation.
The Purple Raiders held for an unsuccessful last shot, as they did again at the end of the first overtime after using three free throws — two by Pugh with 1:11 to go and the second of two by Fisher with :57 left — to erase the 69-66 lead Rock Island had opened on a basket by Randy Tucker.
"It was back and forth all night, but we weren’t going to let this one get away," Tucker said.