Entering postseason play with five wins, the United Township boys' basketball team hardly seemed like a potential threat.|
A victory tonight changes the Panthers from a pushover to champion.
Stringing two wins together on consecutive nights has UT one game away from the Class 4A Rock Island Regional title. The Panthers, who entered the regional as the No. 5 seed and with two victories since the calendar flipped to January, meet No. 2 seed Rock Island tonight at 7 in the championship game.
"It's just our time," UT coach Marc Polite said. "We've been kind of scratching and clawing at the door. We hit the postseason at the right time. We had some mixes and changes in the lineup that occurred later in the season. When we introduced the new guys a few weeks ago, we're consistently getting better each game.
"It was a timing thing more than anything. Each game goes by, we're getting better."
Did he expect that to translate into a potential regional title?
"I knew it would be a tough task," Polite said.
No wonder this month is called madness.
Overlooked when the week started, UT is a win away from its first regional championship since 2010.
"They're finding themselves and playing with confidence," Rocky coach Thom Sigel said. "They're finding things that are working for them. That's what everyone tries to do at this time of year."
The culmination could come tonight.
Now in the regional final, the Panthers' reward can come on multiple levels. UT could avenge two losses against the Rocks this season. Actually, the Panthers have lost nine consecutive games in the series.
If UT can pull off yet another upset, it would get a trip home with a regional title. UT hosts next week Class 4A sectional.
"It's an important basketball game, but it's still a basketball game," Polite said. "All those spin-off stories are good after the fact. When we hit the floor, it's about playing basketball.
"Any time you get to this juncture, there are always going to be interesting things that happen. The main thing is when we get out there, we have to be at our best."
The Rocks, who have won four regionals in five years, are fully aware that UT is peaking. With a convincing win over top-seeded Ottawa in the regional semifinal, the Panthers are a threat.
"Anybody that gets it going in the postseason is dangerous," Sigel said. "We just hope that our experiences have prepared us to play in this situation."
One team was expected to be here. The other has managed to keep its season alive.
"They could have folded a while ago," Polite said of his Panthers. "Regardless of the misfortunes, we're going to play hard. But we're not trying to be satisfied being here. We want to win. I don't want to minimize that aspect."
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