MORRISON – All season long, Fulton has lived and died by its 3-point shooting.
On Wednesday, it looked like the Steamers might end their season after consistently missing the mark against their biggest rival, Morrison.
Instead, Fulton found the range and pulled out a 71-63 victory over the Mustangs in a semifinal at the Class 2A Morrison Regional. The Steamers will play for a championship on Friday against Newman.
Fulton (21-9) battled back from a 32-18 halftime deficit to win the rubber game between the teams. Each won on the other's home court in the regular season.
"We challenged them," Fulton coach R.J. Coffey said, when asked about his halftime speech. "We said, 'How do you want to go out? Do you want to go out losing a game like this to your rival, or do you want to respond, battle back, and see how it plays out late?'
"I'll tell you what, the guys responded exactly the way we wanted them to."
The Steamers were 7-for-22 from the field in the first half, including a 3-for-12 performance from 3-point range, before turning things around in dramatic fashion. Fulton hit its first six 3-pointers of the third quarter, which ended ended with the score tied 47-47.
"I knew we couldn't shoot that poor for two halves," Fulton junior guard Zach Barber said. "I knew we would come out hot that second half and finish strong."
The Steamers ended up hitting 8 of 12 3-pointers after halftime.
"You've got to give them credit – they hit shots," Morrison coach Dave Peugh said. "Most of them were pretty deep shots, too. I give them all the credit in the world. Making shots like that in a regional game, that takes a lot of practice."
There were eight lead changes in the fourth quarter. Morrison's last lead was at 63-62 after a basket from junior forward Kaleb Church with 2 minutes to play.
The tide-turning play was then turned in by Barber. Teammate Seth Sanderson missed a 15-footer, but Barber was there to corral the rebound. He laid it back up with his left hand, made it and was fouled on the play. He converted the free throw to put Fulton up 65-63 with 1:40 to play.
"They're big kids, so I knew I couldn't go up straight with my right hand," Barber said. "I knew I had to try to get around contact, and finish it left-handed. It just fell."
Morrison (13-16) didn't score the rest of the game. Bill Greul missed a jump shot after Barber's 3-point play, then the Mustangs missed a trio of 3-pointers on their next three possessions.
Fulton, meanwhile, got a basket from senior forward Jake Willging, and hit four of six free throws down the stretch to put the game on ice.
"Our guys were phenomenal in that third quarter battling back to even it up," Coffey said, "and I was just as proud of them closing out strong. We made plays defensively, hit some big shots, and then closed it down late with free throws."
"It was just like the first two games – whatever team made the plays down the stretch won the game," Peugh said.
Hunter Hamstra was 9-for-12 from field and led Morrison with 20 points, and also grabbed nine rebounds. Mason Sitzmore finished with 16 points, and Church added 15. They are all juniors and will return next season.
Matt Dail scored 19 of his team-high 21 points in the second half to lead Fulton, and Barber finished with 18. Willging (13 points) and Kyle Huebner (10) also reached double figures.
"Dail and Barber, they're both great shooters," Hamstra said. "We knew coming in that they were great shooters. At the end of the game, they started hitting shots, and we couldn't match that."
Fulton now gets another shot at Newman, which won both regular-season meetings. The winner between the Steamers and Comets advances to the Bureau Valley Sectional and will play the winner of the Princeton Regional, either Seneca or Bureau Valley, on Wednesday, March 5.
"We've just got to come into the game focused," Barber said. "We know what they can do – we've played them twice. We've just got to execute and make plays."
"It's a big game," Dail added, "and it's hard to beat a team three times."
Star of the game: Matt Dail, Fulton, 21 points, 5 rebounds, 4 steals
Key performers: Zach Barber, Fulton, 18 points; Hunter Hamstra, Morrison, 20 points, 9 rebounds
Up next: Championship game, Fulton vs. Newman, 7 p.m. Friday