FORRESTON – With just over a minute left in Wednesday's 1A Forreston Regional semifinal, Lucas Ebersole provided a glimmer of hope.
The Milledgeville junior connected on a 3-pointer that pulled the Missles within one possession of Eastland.
Like a spark at the end of a fuse, that glimmer of hope started to fan out across the Missile faithful.
Before it could spread throughout the packed gym, Dalton Shaner came up and stomped it out.
The Eastland senior took the ball hard to the rim on the opposite end for a layup. The points helped break the backs of a spunky MIssile team in what turned into a 51-42 win for the Cougars.
"That was a really important moment," Shaner said. "You could feel them getting some momentum, and they are a team that can hit a lot of 3-pointers. We didn't want them to get any closer."
Shaner's layup put Eastland ahead 46-41.
The Missiles brought the ball up court and worked the ball over to senior Caleb Skoog, who fired a 3-pointer while getting fouled.
The shot missed, but Skoog went to the line for three attempts. He made just one.
Eastland (23-4) went up six with two free throws by Eric Schaney. After a Missile turnover, Devin Hartman hit Skylar Paulson on a Hail Mary pass against the full-court press. Paulson converted the layup to ice the game.
"Our kids played very hard," Milledgeville coach Brian Rahn said. "I couldn't be more proud of this team. We did a few uncharacteristic things tonight, like turn the ball over too much, but it was a good game. We look at it like we split with them this season, they just won the one that counted more."
"I can't say enough about how much I respect what coach Rahn and those kids have done," Eastland coach Tony Dunlap said. "They've put in a lot of effort to get to this point. They took their lumps that last couple years, and then became a 20-win team this year."
Eastland advances to play Aquin in the regional championship game at 7 p.m. on Friday. Aquin beat Polo 44-39 in the other semifinal.
The Missiles eased ahead in the first quarter thanks to 3-pointers by Skoog and Ebersole. Milledgeville (21-5) led 14-8 at the end of one quarter.
The momentum continued into the second quarter, as Milledgeville extended the lead out to nine points at 21-13.
"We knew that with two good teams, this would be a game of runs," Skoog said. "We made ours early, and then they got going right before half. We thought we were going to get going again at the end, but not enough shots fell."
The game turned in the last 4 minutes of the second quarter, as Eastland went on an 11-2 run that was capped by a Paulson jumper from the free-throw line, set up by a pass from Valdet Seferi.
"That was a huge shot," Shaner said. "We had started slow, and then fought back. I think Skylar hitting that shot gave us all the momentum going into the break."
Paulson became even more active in the second half, as he had seven of his nine rebounds after the break. The 6-foot-2 senior, who will be playing football next year at McKendree University, had a putback bucket in an 8-0 run for Eastland to start the second half.
"I didn't think we came out with very much energy to start the game," Dunlap said. "I'll blame myself for that. But, about halfway through the second quarter, that started to change. Our energy picked up, and that continued into the second half."
Paulson finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. He helped Eastland to a 32-26 rebounding advantage. Blake Janssen added seven rebounds.
"The play of our big guys was the difference in the game," Shaner said. "We lost the first game because we didn't control the boards. Tonight, we took control of the game because they were rebounding so well."
Shaner finished with a game-high 20 points, and he had three steals.
The Missiles had a balanced attack. Skoog led the way with nine points. Zach Herin, who hit two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to stage the Missiles' rally, finished with eight points, as did Ebersole and Kameron DawTyne. Jordan Harris had seven points.
Star of the game: Skylar Paulson, Eastland, 15 points, 9 rebounds
Key performers: Caleb Skoog, 9 points, 9 rebounds; Dalton Shaner, Eastland, 20 points, 3 steals
Up next: 1A Forreston Regional championship, Eastland vs. Aquin, 7 p.m. Friday