After battling to the bitter end of the regular season, the two teams who shared the Three River East title will play for sectional titles tonight.
Newman will battle East Dubuque in the Class 1A Eastland Sectional final, while Bureau Valley will enjoy a home-court advantage in Class 2A against Winnebago.
The Comets (26-4) needed overtime to escape Eastland’s upset bid in their regional semifinal at Polo, and were able to control the host Marcos in the final. Newman then held off a fierce sectional semifinalist in River Ridge on Wednesday to have the chance at a third Elite Eight appearance in the last six seasons.
Standing in the Comets’ way is a Warriors squad that returned almost everybody from last year’s Elite Eight team. East Dubuque finished tied for second in the NUIC West this season despite its 29-3 overall record, and poses all sorts of matchup problems with its lineup.
Lane Boyer (6-foot-3) utilizes a mix of crafty playmaking and lethal shooting touch at point guard, and Hunter Sherman (6-foot-2) can create on both the perimeter and the interior. Payton Heller (6-foot-4) blends a solid offensive game with a knack for rebounding, Jackson Bowman (6-foot-4) does the dirty work inside, and Nicholas Kluesner (6-foot-5) uses angles to make crisp passes and drive to the hoop.
Even head coach Eric Miller is an imposing figure on the sideline at 6-foot-9.
“East Dubuque likes to play a slow game, so we’ll have to play our game and get up and down with them so they get tired,” Newman forward Devon House said. “We need to get easy transition layups. It’s going to be harder to set up an offense with their length, so we need to take care of the ball.”
Both teams can fill it up on the offensive end, so both coaches know the key lies on defense. Newman coach Ray Sharp noticed East Dubuque’s ability to take advantage of mismatches from anywhere on the court in the Warriors’ 52-47 win Tuesday over Milledgeville.
“They post up everybody,” Sharp said. “Whoever has the post-up, they make a great post move and score. We need to play great team defense, and make sure we have the gaps covered and have help.”
Just because opponents know East Dubuque constantly has the advantage with mismatches doesn’t always mean teams can stop them. The Warriors defeated NUIC West regular-season champ Pearl City for the third time this season by a 52-37 final in the regional title game last week, a contest in which the Wolves simply couldn’t contain Boyer and Sherman.
After allowing just 61 points in two regional games, Miller was displeased Milledgeville reached 47 points on Tuesday. The Warriors stifled the Missiles 35-26 last season in the 1A Stockton Regional final.
“We don’t like giving up 47,” Miller said. “We’ll start on the defensive end. But we provide trouble for other teams because we may not be able to guard your big, but who’s your big going to guard?”
Much like Newman, Bureau Valley passed a solid test of fortitude in its 56-46 victory against Byron on Tuesday night.
The Storm were ahead 28-18 late in the first half, with possession of the ball and head coach Jason Smith instructing his team to play for the last shot. With 18 seconds on the clock, senior guard Corbin Endress hit a short jumper, and BV took a 30-18 lead into halftime.
Over the next 10 minutes of play, however, Byron went on a 20-3 run to seize a 38-33 lead, and all the noise among the Storm Cellar crowd was coming from behind the Tigers’ bench.
Baskets from Endress and Kale Barnett, along with two free throws from Andrew Petros, in the next minute got Bureau Valley the lead back, and a three-point play from Endress at the 4:33 mark gave the Storm a lead they did not relinquish.
Bureau Valley closed the game on a 23-8 run over the final 5:45.
“They’re resilient,” Smith said. “They play hard, no matter when they’re down or up, they play hard. They might go through some lulls like they did in that third quarter, but they play so dang hard. They compete, and I’ve never questioned their competitiveness or playing hard, because they do that 24/7.”
Endress scored 11 of his 13 points in the last quarter, one of many BV players to come up big. Junior guard Tyler Gustafson hit all four of his free throw attempts, Barnett and Petros drained 3 of 4, and the Storm made 12 of 15 in the quarter. From the field, BV was 5-for-6 in the last 8 minutes, with Endress (4-for-4) leading the way.
“We grind it out,” Endress said. “Yeah, we were getting a little nervous out there, but we just kept playing, and in the end we got key stops and points.”
The Storm (27-4) will attempt to keep the momentum going today in the sectional title game against Winnebago (28-2), which handled Alleman 59-32 on Wednesday. The Indians’ only two losses were to Aurora Christian at the State Farm Classic back on Dec. 29, and to Rock Falls in a showdown for the Big Northern Conference title on Feb. 16.
The Indians are led by 6-foot-9 center Andrew Morrissey, who is averaging 19 points and 14 rebounds per game. He is headed to Northern Alabama next season.