Plenty of patience and the hot shooting touch of a determined senior led the Rock Island boys basketball team to an Illinois Class 4A regional championship on Friday.
The Rocks took down their second rated opponent in three days, beating eighth-ranked Normal West 65-57 at Rock Island Fieldhouse to advance a sectional match-up on Tuesday, facing Western Big Six rival Moline after the Maroons beat Danville 56-51 to win their own regional title.
"Nobody thought we could do this, but here we are," senior Randy Tucker said as he watched teammates climb a ladder and snip off a piece of the net as a memento of the teamwork it took for Rock Island to earn its title.
"We stayed with our plan, shared the ball, did the things it takes to win and it paid off. In all three games this week, we’ve done that, and it’s made a difference."
If Rock Island hoped to avenge a 42-28 regular-season loss to the Wildcats, it needed to stick to the script against Normal West, a team that balanced solid outside shooting with the strength of the state’s top-rated junior prospect, 6-foot-9, 230-pound Francis Okoro.
Rocks coach Thom Sigel watched his team walk a defensive tightrope, not wanting to let either element of Normal West's offense get too comfortable.
"You can’t let Okoro go off and get every basket, because he’s capable of that, and you have to respect their 3-point shooters, too," Sigel said. "We wanted to make it tough on Okoro, not give him his favorite moves, and for the most part we did a good job with that."
With assistant coaches Jamall Walker of Illinois and Jerrance Howard of Kansas looking on, Okoro was held to 2-of-5 shooting and six points through three quarters.
He finished with 16 points and 17 rebounds as Normal West tried in vain to overcome a deficit that grew from 24-20 at halftime to 37-29 after three quarters, struggling to find any flow as the Rocks mixed and matched zone and man-to-man defenses.
Rock Island helped out on Okoro and contested most shots of the 25 shots the Wildcats took from behind the arc, a combination that led the Rocks to a lead that reached 50-34 when Ben Ellis completed a three-point play with 3:45 remaining in the game.
"Playing them earlier helped us a lot," Ellis said. "We weren’t intimidated by them, and it gave us a feel for how they liked to play and how we needed to deal with that."
Rock Island displayed plenty of patience against the Wildcats’ zone defense, passing up good shots for better shots, which led to a 6-of-8 start from the field.
That helped the Rocks overcome an early 10-3 deficit with a run of 12 unanswered points that pushed Rock Island ahead to stay after Tucker hit his second 3-point basket of the first quarter.
Tucker led the Rocks with 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting including a 5-of-7 touch from 3-point range. The 6-4 senior extended Rock Island’s four-point halftime lead to 29-20 two minutes into the third quarter by hitting a basket, followed by the first of his three 3-pointers in the quarter.
"Coming off the hand, everything felt comfortable," Tucker said. "It was pure confidence."
JaMar Price helped set Tucker up for his 11-point third quarter, dishing out half of six assists in the quarter.
"I do what I can to get the ball to him as quick as I can when he gets in that zone because when he’s got it going, he’s amazing," Price said.
After Tucker gave Rock Island a 29-20 lead, Normal West (22-8) came no closer than five points rest of the game.
The Rocks (18-11) turned away the Wildcats late on three baskets during a two-minute stretch by Jayden Tucker midway through a fourth quarter which saw Price score eight of his 17 points and Ellis collect eight of his 10.
"Everybody had a job to do and when the chance was there, we did it," Jayden Tucker said. "We got a lead and we kept pushing. We kept our composure and our poise. We believed we could do this. We believed we could win this game."