PEKIN — For those who witnessed the Rock Island boys' basketball team snare a 63-55 win over Normal West in a Class 4A Pekin Sectional semifinal at Dawdy Hawkins Gym on Tuesday, the result played out like a novel.
In reality, the ending should not have featured suspense.
Rocky led 41-20 midway through the third quarter before the Wildcats got within one possession eight minutes later. While it appeared as though the Rocks (25-4) were about to fumble away what seemed to be the perfect script, they closed this chapter with their fourth sectional final berth in five years.
"We're not satisfied," Rocky senior forward Raahsaan Brown said. "We shouldn't have let a lead like that get out of our hands, but we got out of here with a win. That's all that matters."
Running its winning streak to 11 games, Rocky meets Edwardsville, a 59-38 winner over O'Fallon in the other semifinal, in Friday's 7:30 p.m. sectional championship game. Rocky enters the contest with momentum established during a solid six-week stretch but nearly let its season slip away during a head-scratching sequence.
C.J. Carr's 3-pointer from the top of the key put the Rocks ahead 41-20 with 4:48 left in the third, giving them their largest lead of the game. At a moment when Rocky could have turned the game into a runaway, it nearly fell apart.
A six-minute stretch without a field goal, coupled with West (22-9) consistently hitting shots, sliced the lead to 50-47 after Adam Neuhouser's layup with 3:41 left in the game. That capped an 18-3 run.
"A team isn't going to lay down and pack up for spring sports just because they have a deficit," Rocky coach Thom Sigel said. "We got tentative."
Two baskets calmed the Rocks' worries.
Rob Johnson ended the field-goal drought with a baseline layup that pushed the Rocks' lead back to 52-47 with 2:49 left. After Adam McGinnis sank two fouls shots to get the deficit back to three points two possessions later, Brown buried a 15-footer to push it back to 54-49 with two minutes left.
West never got closer the rest of the game as the Rocks hit nine of their 12 foul shots in the last 90 seconds.
"You have to do whatever you have to do to get the victory," said Rocky junior guard Trey Sigel, who scored a team-high 14 points. "If it was ugly, it was ugly. But we got the win, and we're still playing."
As much as the ending defined this saga, the start was a story in itself.
Opening the game by hitting their first nine shots, the Rocks led 23-9 after one and 30-14 at halftime. During that time, they hit 14 of their 19 shot attempts with 10 assists.
Even after three quarters, the Rocks were shooting 66.7 percent (22 of 33) from the field.
"This is a perfect example of the good things we can do," Brown said, "and what can happen with mental lapses."
Nine minutes overshadowed the good Rocky did in the other 23.
"Their press gave us some headaches," said Trey Sigel about the Rocks' five fourth-quarter turnovers. "We may not have responded the best, but we responded in a way that got the win."
The ending was not ideal, but it was one the Rocks will take.
"In the end, good teams win," Brown said.
Ending aside, Rocky had Johnson (11 points, nine rebounds) and Brown (10) reach double figures with Carr adding eight points, seven assists and four steals.
Seven of the nine players who saw the court scored at least six points.
"We're still playing," Thom Sigel said. "I told them not to remember the four- or five-minute stretch where we blew the lead. I told them to remember all the things — especially early — that got us the lead. We did a lot of things well."
This one may not win a Pulitzer Prize, but it keeps the Rocks' season alive.