United Township stars De’Ante Walker and Tray Buchanan refused to lose Friday night at the Panther Den.
In a game that was close throughout and tied at halftime, a much-improved Rock Island team grabbed a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the Panthers came roaring back thanks to the deft hands of Walker, who had two steals leading to his 10 fourth-quarter points, propelling the Panthers to a thrilling 59-53 victory over Rock Island.
At one point, Walker scored seven points in a row for the Panthers, helping turn a 43-41 deficit into a 52-48 UT lead. His 3-pointer brought UT into the lead at 44-43 near the midway point of the fourth quarter. He followed that with a steal and two free throws.
“I looked at my coaching staff and said we need somebody to make a play for us defensively,” said Panthers coach Ryan Webber, whose team is now 15-2 overall and 5-0 in the Western Big Six. “He made a couple in a row, and it turned the tide a little bit and got the momentum in our favor. He made big shots and huge free throws.”
Walker credited his teammates after the win, but even he had to admit this was one of his best ever.
“I’ve had pretty good games, but this was a really good one,” Walker said.
Walker was well supported by all-stater Tray Buchanan, who had six points in the fourth quarter and 17 for the game. Between the two, they made 11 of 12 at the line in the fourth quarter.
“I wouldn’t trade those two guys for anything,” Webber said.
Buchanan played well through foul trouble. The UT star was whistled for his third foul with 4:53 to go in the third quarter.
“We just tried to stay composed,” he said. “We’ve played in big games before. D-Walk had a helluva night. He played really good and knocked down big-time shots.”
Rock Island falls to 9-7, 2-2 in the Western Big Six, but appears to have gelled after losing its leading scorer, Lacey Watson, to suspension early in December. The Rocks were led by a familiar duo from the football season. Jacob Ellis scored 14 points and his former quarterback, Alek Jacobs, added 12.
“I was disappointed with some plays we made that kind of hurt us,” said Rock Island coach Thom Sigel, who was whistled for a technical in the second quarter that led to four straight Panther points. “But you can’t control everything that goes on between the lines.
“We would have loved to have had some plays back. But I told them, I thought our focus was good all week. The effort was good and I think we keep trying to get better. And that’s what they keep doing. I really like this group.”
But in a well-played game where UT shot 50 percent from the field and Rock Island just under it, the Rocks could not quite garner their 10th win of the season. Rocky outrebounded UT 23-14 but had 15 turnovers to the Panthers’ seven.
“Credit them,” Sigel said of UT. “They made big shots that they needed to. We got them down and they came back. They’re a good team and are well coached. We are getting close.”