LANARK – In the end, all Eastland’s players and fans could do was watch their Forreston counterparts dance on the bright orange paw at midcourt.
The scene, after the Cardinals’ 46-43 overtime victory in the Class 1A Eastland Regional final on Friday night, was unlikely in many ways.
Forreston (16-13) lost to Eastland (25-4) by 24 points (66-42) the second game of the season, on that very court. In the rematch, the Cardinals hit just 16 of 35 free-throw attempts, and committed a crucial turnover at the end of regulation to give the Cougars a chance to pull out the win.
Eastland had the ball at the end of regulation and overtime, but didn’t convert either time.
The second failure sealed the second straight regional final loss to Forreston.
“We just didn’t execute when we needed to,” Eastland coach Tony Dunlap said. “When it’s two evenly-matched teams, it always comes down to whoever executes best, and it’s usually at the end of the game. My hat’s off to Forreston. They did a great job, and so did our kids. This just stings. It’s never easy to lose, let alone a regional championship two years in a row. That’s why I’ve got to do a better job of getting my guys ready.”
Eastland, which scored just four points in the fourth quarter and four more in the overtime to squander a 35-29 lead entering the fourth quarter, was ahead 43-40 with the ball and just over two minutes remaining.
Forreston then made it’s move. A steal by Robert Cornelius resulted in his two free throws with 1 minute, 29 seconds left to slice the lead to 43-42.
“It was big,” Cornelius said of his steal. “It helped our team get back into the game and gave momentum to us.”
The Cougars’ Austin Hansen then turned the ball over with 46 seconds left in overtime, setting up two more free throws by Cornelius with 26.9 seconds remaining.
Eastland’s Dalton Shaner then missed a contested layup with 13 seconds left in overtime. A mad scramble for the rebound concluded with the ball in the hands of the Cards’ Cody Whitehead, who was quickly fouled. His two free throws with 9.5 seconds left gave Forreston a 3-point cushion.
Shaner, whose potential game-winning 15-footer at the end of regulation rattled in and out, again got the call at the end of overtime. His three from the right wing only grazed the rim, however, and Forreston had its upset win.
“In the fourth quarter, that was a good look,” Shaner said. “In overtime, we probably could have got a better shot. Maybe I should have passed it to somebody else.”
Shaner led Eastland with 12 points and Ty Hartman added 12 rebounds and 11 points.
Bronkema led Forreston with 15, despite converting just five of 19 from the line. He was 1-for-6 in the overtime.
“I felt like I lost my free throw rhythm up there,” Bronkema said. “Oh well, we got the job done. I made about three free throws and we won by three, so that was just enough.”
Forreston advances to the River Ridge Sectional, where it will take on Newman on Tuesday night. The Comets beat Erie 76-56 to take the Newman Regional.