It can happen to the greatest of teams, at the highest of state high-school boys' basketball levels.
Rock Island, in the Sweet 16, suffered a 26-point loss, 71-45, to Edwardsville in the Class 4A Pekin Sectional championship game Friday night. Even so, there was a worse finale for the Rocks at the Sweet 16 level or better.
Twenty-two years ago in an Elite Eight game against a Howard Nathan-led Peoria Manual team at the Assembly Hall, the Rocks were on the just-as-tough-to-swallow end of an 89-60 rout. Coached by the legendary Duncan Reid, who was in the large Rocky fan section at Pekin High School, those Rocks finished with a 29-2 record. Their starting five consisted of David Robinson, now an assistant coach at United Township; Tony Pulliam; Tony Bender; Steve Wilson; and Tom Wise.
Of Rocky seniors Trae Babers, Brian Richardson and Robert Johnson, none had heard of any of those five. Junior Trey Sigel, his dad, Thom, the Rocks' head coach, said he had heard of three -- Robinson, Wilson and Pulliam.
In 2035, Rocky roundballers might not know of Babers, Richardson or Johnson, or C.J. Carr or Raahsaan Brown. They may know of Sigel, the name etched in RI history with Thom coaching RI to a Class 3A state title two years ago.
The teams from 1991 and 2013, though, share more than just being on the wrong end of a lopsided last game as part of the last 16 teams in the state's classification still alive.
"For the seniors on the team, it leaves a bitter taste to lose that way," said Trey Sigel. "But 10 or 15 years from now, we'll all be able to come back to Rock Island Fieldhouse and see a sectional- and regional-championship and a conference-championship banner that we accomplished."
Richardson believes he won't be able to forget his last game in a Rocky uniform, though the score would indicate he might want to do so.
"It will stick with me," said Richardson, who led the Rocks in scoring with 11 points, but all in the first half. "I'll always wonder should I have worked harder in practices, and, if so, would it have made me a better player in this game."
Those memories extend from the beginning of the blowout to the end.
"I realized that there weren't any fouls (called on Edwardsville) in the first quarter," he said. "That didn't bode well for us, especially with a team like they have. They just beat us – they beat us on the 3s, they beat us on the boards, they beat us in the lane, they just beat us up."
The players from that 1990-91 Rocky team probably would say the same about that Peoria Manual team, with the Rocks one win from the Final Four back then. Or, maybe they'd just remember and reflect on one of the best season records in school history (the 1989-90 team went 27-1 but lost in a sectional; the 1995-96 team also went 29-2 and lost in the Elite Eight).
Chances are, they all still think the way Babers did a half hour after his team's 26-point loss. "What I will remember is the bonding and the relationships that were built with my teammates," said Babers. "They are like a family to me and I will never forget them."
True, great teams can suffer losses by unthinkable margins even when they are among the few teams left in the state tournament.
It happens. But it doesn't detract from the memories, nor can it take away from the ledgers they have added to the book on Rocky basketball. Sports editor Marc Nesseler can be reached at email@example.com
Worst RI defeats in a final game, Sweet 16 or higher
29, 89-60 to Peoria Manual, 1990-91, 29-2 record 25, 71-45 to Edwardsville, 2012-13, 25-5 19, 48-29 to Peoria, 1907-08, 10-5 18, 76-58 to Chicago King, 1988-89, 22-6 (4th)