PEKIN — About the best Rock Island coach Thom Sigel could say about Wednesday night's Class 4A Pekin Regional semifinal against United Township is, "at least we get to go back to practice (today)."
In what was a very ugly game, the Rocks trailed most of the night before rallying to beat the Panthers 39-34 to advance to Friday's title game against the hometown Pekin Dragons.
"It is just a frustrating and sick feeling when you see your team with no confidence and playing tighter and tighter as the game went along," Sigel said. "(UT) was playing with the lead, and we were missing layups and free throws. That opening postseason game is always a difficult one."
Also sick were Rock Island guards JaMir Price and Jamal Randle. Both were suffering from cold and flu symptoms. Sigel said he tried to give them as many rests as possible.
There was no rest for UT's starters, playing the entire game with those five until the they were subbed out with 1.3 seconds left. Senior Atem Agot, a big part of UT's success this season, was not among the usual starters as he was not with the team on Wednesday.
"I told coach I would be fine," Price said. "We all came out real sluggish, but we just didn't want to lose. There was no way our guys were going to let this get away."
Trailing 32-29, the Rocks (19-9) had several chances to get the game tied but continued to miss open shots. Meanwhile, the RI defense was stifling the Panthers (17-13), forcing 27 turnovers.
"I guess bumping is OK and grabbing is OK," UT coach Ryan Webber said. "If that is OK then you are going to turn the ball over. Give Rocky credit, they kept playing that way and it worked."
Price had six steals and Jordan Rice five. That is finally what did in the Panthers, who did not take a shot from the field in the final four minutes and had just 25 for the game.
"That was our gameplan, to pressure them," Price said. "Jordan is so good on the ball, and he creates even more steals than he gets. UT is really a hard team to play against because they go 60 seconds on every offensive possession and then play that zone that makes you use a lot of time."
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In the end it was those steals that gave the Rocks a win. A steal by Rice set up a fast-break that resulted in Jayden Tucker rebounding his own miss for a score that put the Rocks up 33-32. Then, Price made a steal at midcourt and went in for an uncontested layup.
"Even when we were down by three late I felt like we had the momentum from our defense and it was just a matter of time," Price said.
"We were aggressive all night and it finally paid off late," Sigel said. "'Jam' had a bad turnover early in the third quarter, but he made some plays the way we expect him to down the stretch.
"As frustrating as it was, we stayed in position and finally made some plays."
Price led the Rocks with 19 points and no one else had more than five.
For UT, Daveon Wilson led the way with 12 points and eight rebounds and Jean Luc Wilson added 10 and six.
"I'm proud of my guys, they fought hard to the end," Webber said. "Malykai (Trice) stepped up as the next guy in his first start. Daveon, Jean Luc and Griff (Ronnebeck) played like seniors and battled."
As for Agot, Webber said, "We hold everyone to a high standard and he didn't live up to what we want as part of our program."