LaSALLE – It may take a day or two for the celebration to stop and the Dixon Dukes to realize what they accomplished Friday at the Class 3A LaSalle-Peru Regional.
In a game where the Dukes answered every challenge the Mendota Trojans threw at them, Dixon won its first regional championship since 1986 with a 55-44 victory.
"If you would have asked me the last 2 years, when we had one win and three wins, if I thought we would win a regional my junior year, I probably would have lied and said yes," Dixon forward Cal Jarrett said, smile as wide as the court. "But I would have been lying. This is going to take a couple of days to sink in, but we're really going to appreciate this and stay in the moment as long as we can."
The win means a matchup with Morton in the 3A Peoria Sectional semifinals on Wednesday. Morton defeated Peoria Manual 44-43 in overtime Friday.
"This is crazy, just really amazing," sophomore forward Isaiah Roby said. "I just can't explain what this means, what this feels like, what's going through my head right now. It's just incredible."
Playing a team that relied on scoring runs and dribble penetration all season long, Dixon (23-6) never let Mendota (20-9) get into its comfort zone.
Even with the 6-foot-7 Roby in foul trouble, things actually worked out better for Dixon.
"We had to switch to a 2-3 zone, and that really limited their ability to get what they wanted and get points around the basket," Dixon coach Jason Mead said. "We've emphasized defense all year, and we really made it a priority tonight. If we could not let them have two scoring possessions in a row very often, and if we could string together three straight stops on a few occasions, we felt like we could succeed."
But it wasn't just the defense that controlled things for the Dukes. The Trojans never led in the game, and managed to tie the score just four times all night – the last time in the opening 2 minutes of the third quarter – because Dixon knocked down shot after shot to keep Mendota at bay. Dixon finished 20-for-39 from the floor, while Mendota shot 15-for-58 (25.9 percent).
Laron Carr facilitated everything for the Dukes, repeatedly getting into the lane and either dishing off for a teammate's bucket, or hitting a runner or floater. He finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Cal Jarrett knocked down a few jumpers off curls in the first half to keep the Trojans at an arm's length. Jarrett had 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
And Roby, despite being saddled with three fouls for much of the second quarter, and four for the final quarter and a half, was still active enough to contribute 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and five blocks.
"We all know somebody will step up for us, but we never really know who it will be until the game starts," Jarrett said. "We just have so much trust in each other ... and when we all step up, at different times in different clutch situations, that's when special things happen."
Carr's runout layup with 1:10 left in the second quarter snapped a 24-24 tie, and ended the scoring in a nip-and-tuck first half that saw the Dukes lead by as many as five, and the Trojans tie it up three times.
But after Mendota's Joe LaShonse went coast-to-coast for a layup off of a steal to tie the score at 26 with 6:17 left i the third quarter, the Dukes went on the only real run of the game.
Kyle LeBlanc scored on a post-to-post pass from Roby, then Matt Coffey drilled a 3-pointer off a Carr feed. Carr scored a runout layup on a goaltend, then he knocked down a baseline floater for a 35-26 lead with 3:36 left in the third, forcing a Trojan timeout.
"We got some stops, played some good defense, and scored points on the other end," Carr said. "Once we started controlling the tempo, stayed calm and slowed it down to keep them from running on us too much, it was easier to take care of the ball.
"We never panicked, especially after that run, because we felt like we had all the momentum."
Mendota scored the final six points of the period to close to within 35-32, but Coffey's second 3 and two Carr free throws opened the fourth quarter to restore a 40-32 Dixon lead.
The Trojans got no closer than five points the rest of the way, and after Carr's floater and 3 put the Dukes up 45-37 with 3:23 to go, it was just a matter of running the clock and hitting free throws to overcome six fourth-quarter turnovers and secure the win.
"We just focused on playing aggressive, but being smart about it," Roby said. "We kept them out of rhythm by slowing down the tempo, but we got good shots and made layups and then hit our free throws."
Dixon made all 10 of its free-throw attempts in the final quarter, and finished the game 11-for-12 from the line. The Dukes also hit four of their 10 3s – all at crucial junctures – in their 51.3-percent shooting night.
"They limited our ability to crash the offensive glass effectively, and we couldn't seem to get to the basket," Mendota coach Jan Thompson said. "They hit some shots, had every answer for us, and I think they really put us on our heels there in the second half."
As the Dixon crowd got louder as it sensed what was about to happen, the roof nearly blew off Sellett Gym when Roby put the exclamation point on the victory. With less than a minute to play, the sophomore blocked a Mendota shot on the perimeter, then sprinted up court to catch Carr's pass. He just cleared the rim with a two-handed dunk, causing the decibel level to rise even further ... and inciting coach Mead to leap about 2 feet in the air and pump his fists.
"I'll do my best to put this feeling into words," said a beaming Mead. "About 100 people have come up to me and told me, 'Nice job, Coach,' but anybody could have coached this group of kids to this regional title.
"To go from one win to three wins to 23 wins, it's all about these kids buying into this and putting in the time, sacrificing time with friends and family because of their drive to get better and get this done. They never gave up on turning this thing around, they deserve every bit of this, and I'll never be prouder of a group of kids no matter how long I end up coaching."
Star of the game: Laron Carr, Dixon, 23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists
Key performers: Isaiah Roby, Dixon, 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 blocks, 3 assists; Cal Jarrett, Dixon, 10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks; James Carroll, Mendota, 11 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals
Up next: Class 3A Peoria Sectional, Dixon vs. Morton, 7 p.m. Wednesday at Bradley University