PEORIA – The jumper was shot from the only gap in the Eastland defense, by the only Nokomis player who could find any daylight against the Cougars' tight man-to-man coverage.
Even before the ball swished through the net, Nokomis senior Evan Huber knew the shot was true.
Huber's pull-up jumper from the left elbow found nothing but net Saturday afternoon, sending the Redskins to third place in Class 1A with a 44-42 victory over Eastland at Carver Arena.
"It felt good, and I knew it was in," Huber said of his game-winner with 2 seconds left. "We always work on those last-second plays in practice, and I curled high instead of floating to the corner … and I got a nice little elbow jumper out of it."
The shot dashed Eastland's hopes of finishing their stellar campaign with a win, and answered Dalton Shaner's best impression of Superman in the final 2½ minutes of the contest. The 6-foot-1 junior guard put the Cougars on his back, scoring a game-high 29 points, nabbing a team-high three steals, and pulling down five rebounds.
He opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer to give Eastland (30-5) a 33-28 lead, then came back with some more long-range heroics down the stretch to give the Cougars a chance.
After Nokomis (25-10) used a 10-1 run to turn that five-point deficit into a four-point lead (38-34) in the final 3 minutes, Shaner nailed a pull-up 3 from the right wing to get Eastland within one, 38-37, with 2:33 to play. Two minutes later, after a Tyler Mueller 2 sandwiched between Nokomis free throws, another Shaner 3 from almost the same spot – this one an off-balance shot under duress and through contact – tied the game at 42 with 24.6 seconds remaining.
"I was definitely feeling it," Shaner said, "and I was just going crazy after those two late 3s. It didn't seem like I had scored that much, and I didn't really look up at the scoreboard until the fourth quarter, when time became so important. After such an awful shooting day [Friday], it felt good to knock some shots down.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't hit the big one to help us win."
Maybe by "big one," he meant longest one, referring to the halfcourt heave at the final buzzer that sailed long and wide left after Huber's lone make of the day.
Huber's game-winner came off a set play after Nokomis called timeout with 22.7 seconds left. According to longtime coach Steve Kimbro, Huber was one of three options.
The first two involved point guard Tyler Herpstreith driving to the hoop, and either getting a shot off or dumping it down to center Devon Wright for a layup after drawing the defense in.
The third was Huber, who improvised just enough after breaking contact with his defender to find an open look at the rim.
"We wanted one shot, to either win the game or, at worst, go to overtime," Kimbro said. "Fortunately, we executed the last play of the year perfectly."
"We called the switch at the last second," Shaner recounted, "and by the time I recovered, he had two dribbles on me and had separation."
Defensively, the Cougars were in "deny everything" mode. Coach Tony Dunlap wanted pressure on the ball, as well as lock-down coverage of Wright. There was talk amongst himself and his assistants about possibly fouling early in the possession, but Nokomis was already in the double-bonus and would have gotten two free throws to potentially take the lead in the tie game.
"We wanted them to shoot and hopefully miss, then get the rebound and get a last shot ourselves," Dunlap said. "Credit to their kid for making a big shot."
"I really thought we had all the momentum after my late 3s," Shaner added, "and I felt like we were going to get a steal or an offensive foul on them because of that. But their kid worked to get that shot and earned the basket."
Free throws turned out to be the major difference in the contest. While Nokomis missed the only 3 it attempted, the Redskins outshot Eastland 24-5 from the free-throw line, and outscored the Cougars 18-3 from the stripe.
Most of that damage came after Shaner's walk-up 3 midway through the second quarter gave Eastland its biggest lead at 22-12. That was the easiest look he or any of the Cougars got the rest of the way, and the Redskins kicked up their aggressiveness on offense a few notches.
"They were more physical than us at the start, and I think we were a little intimidated by that," Kimbro said. "We weren't fighting for position as hard as they were, and it came down to us asserting ourselves and getting after like they were."
Eastland was called for 21 fouls compared to Nokomis' 12, but the Cougars refused to use the officiating as an excuse.
"The whistle just didn't go our way today," senior Ty Hartman said, "and that's because they really tried to pound it down low and attack us in the paint. They were physical with us and we were physical with them, and we didn't pick as good of times to be physical as they did, I guess."
"It was kind of a wrestling match at times inside," Nokomis senior Austin Leigh agreed, "and I felt we did a good job of keeping our heads and taking advantage at the free-throw line."
The Redskins scored the final six points of the first half after Shaner's 3, then continued to chip away after Shaner hit layups to open and close the third quarter and buried another 3 from the right corner to open the fourth for a 33-28 Eastland lead.
Nokomis scored the next six points to take its first lead since 2-0 with 4:43 to play. Two free throws each by Leigh and Huber followed a free throw from Hartman to put the Redskins up 38-34 and set up Shaner's spurt down the stretch.
"I think we were all tired of watching 3s rain in at the end of games," said Kimbro, who saw the same thing happen in the sectional and supersectional. "But we took care of the ball, hit our free throws when we had to, and forced that last shot from 60 feet away … and that's where we like to see them shoot it from."
Wright led Nokomis with 16 points, six rebounds and three steals, and Austin Chausse added 10 points, five boards and two steals. Leigh had seven points, five rebounds and two assists, Herpstreith finished with six points and two assists, and Huber chipped in five points, four rebounds and three steals.
Other than Shaner's 29, no Eastland player scored more than four points. Marshall Fink had four points, two steals and two blocks, Hartman added three points and two steals, and Skylar Paulson, Austin Hansen and Mueller scored two each. Paulson grabbed a team-high six rebounds, and Hansen led the way with four assists.
"Usually we're big on team scoring, but we just couldn't create shots or find the open guys," Dunlap said. "It's our fault they shot 24 free throws and we shot five, and our screening out was pathetic. Give Nokomis credit; I thought they got after and fought more than we did, and their rebounding and foul shooting was the difference in the game."
Class 1A state tournament, third-place game
Nokomis 44, Eastland 42
Clutch conversion: Nokomis' Evan Huber hit a pull-up jumper from the left elbow with 2 seconds left to give the Redskins a 44-42 lead. It was Huber's only field goal of the game.
Head Redskin: Devon Wright, Nokomis' 6-foot-1 senior center, had 16 points, six rebounds and three steals. He was only 3-for-11 from the field, but hit 10 of his 12 free throws.
Super Cougar: Dalton Shaner scored a game-high 29 points to go with five rebounds and three steals. He was 11-for-21 from the field, including 5-for-9 from 3-point range.
Fast facts: It's the second time in 4 years Eastland has finished fourth at state in Class 1A. It's also the first time since that 2010 state tournament that the Cougars have lost back-to-back games.