ROCK FALLS – One of the memories that Steven Armoska will take with him from Wednesday's Class 3A Rock Falls Regional will be of him and his teammates smiling as they headed to the bench after a timeout by Mendota.
The Rock Falls senior will remember the smiles, and like a sour lemon, it will make him frown.
The Rockets had good stretches in the semifinal game against the Trojans, but not any long enough to pull away. In the end, it was Mendota that delivered the knockout blows at the free-throw line.
Mendota won 70-57 to advance to Friday's championship game against LaSalle-Peru.
"Here's the example of what happened in the game," Armoska said. "We went on a nice run, got the lead and forced them to call timeout. We were all smiling on the bench and pretty happy with ourselves.
"That was a very good team, and we couldn't afford to get confident. We did, and they were the ones that made the big run."
The Rockets (21-7) – who beat Mendota twice during Big Northern West play – had a pair of runs in the third quarter that, it seemed, would give them momentum for good.
Jace Anderson and Connor Olson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put Rock Falls up 40-35 with 6:40 left in the third quarter.
After Mendota (18-12) pulled within a point, the Rockets were able to extend the lead back to four at 45-41 with 3:40 left after a jumper by Eddie Nelson.
That was when the Trojans when on the decisive run. It started with a runner by James Carroll to make it a two-point game, and then Carroll gave Mendota the lead by making four consecutive free throws in the next two possessions.
It turned into a 12-2 run that extended into the fourth quarter, as Mendota then held a 53-47 advantage.
The lead stayed around six points for most of the final frame. The Rockets weren't able to hit the big shots when they were open, and the Trojans dominated the boards.
"We were running our offense the same, but weren't stepping up on key possessions," Rock Falls point guard Alex Leaf said. "They were doing a good job of collapsing on the inside, and we weren't hitting our shots from the outside. Mendota deserves the credit for getting after it on the boards."
The Rockets were continually held to one shot on possessions, while Mendota was able to get multiple shots and, quite often, draw fouls after grabbing rebounds.
Mendota finished with a 43-20 rebounding advantage.
"Rebounding was the first the thing we touched on in our pregame talk," Rock Falls coach Brad Bickett said. "We had escaped with a win there earlier this year, even though they controlled the boards.
"I wouldn't say that our kids played poorly, or that they didn't play hard. Mendota just played very well, and you can't give up that much in rebounding."
The Trojans put the game away at the line after nearly giving a win away Monday against Sterling by not making free throws.
Mendota hit just five of 13 attempts in the fourth quarter against the Warriors, who rallied from a 21-point deficit to make it a three-point game.
Against the Rockets, Mendota hit 15 of 20 free throws in the fourth quarter and made 20 of 27 for the night. Rock Falls made five of nine attempts in the game.
"What a difference it makes if you hit free throws," Mendota coach Jan Thompson said. "It makes everything else so much easier.
"I don't know what happened Monday. We've worked on free throws all year, and we've shot them well. I think it bothered the kids that they shot that way. They promised me that it wouldn't happen again. They backed that promise up tonight."
Armoska led Rock Falls with 19 points, including a pair of dunks – a two-handed slam on a breakaway after a steal in the first quarter, and a one-handed dunk in the third quarter off another Mendota turnover. Armoska also had four blocks.
Senior Austin Babcock scored nine points, including two 3-pointers. Anderson and Leaf each had six points.
"Stopping Alex Leaf was a big part of our defense," Thompson said. "He killed us the first two games because he's so quick and can get to the lane so fast. We couldn't let him cut in like that and then kick out to their shooters."
James Carroll had 22 points for Mendota. Trae Blumhorst had 18 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. Austin O'Sadnick had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Star of the game: Trae Blumhorst, Mendota, 18 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists
Key performers: James Carroll, Mendota, 22 points; Steven Armoska, Rock Falls, 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks
Up next; Class 2A Rock Falls Regional final, Mendota vs. LaSalle-Peru, 7:30 p.m. Friday