PEORIA — Most players stood, encircling St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball coach Brian Brooks.
A few sat on the orange two-seat couch, playing with their sub sandwiches.
All wore dress clothes. Some had their maroon SJ-O letterman jackets on.
All barely uttered a word, their eyes locked in on Brooks.
The lights in the hotel suite were dimmed, with only pockets of sunlight peeking in through the closed window curtains.
More than three hours before tipoff of the most important game in program history, players, coaching staff and members of Brooks’ family listened to the following from their head coach.
“I want you to go out there and take it all in, but don’t let it consume you,” Brooks said. “We can beat these guys, without question.
You’re going to find out that coming to practice every day and working your tail off benefits you. My guess is everybody outside this room doesn’t give you a chance. Not because you’re not good, but (Harrisburg is) really good and have been really good all year.”
Still are. The Bulldogs ended SJ-O’s hopes of a possible Class 2A state championship by defeating the Spartans 53-43 in SJ-O’s first trip to a state semifinal game.
“We know we can play with anybody,” SJ-O senior guard Chase Patton said. “It was disappointing we came up short, but we let (Harrisburg) get a big start at the beginning.”
SJ-O (29-4) faces Winnebago (32-1) at 6:30 tonight in the third-place game while Harrisburg (32-1) tangles with Seton Academy (23-10) at 8:15 tonight in the state championship game.
“As I told our guys, we’ve got an opportunity to play on the last night of the season,” Brooks said. “There’s only four teams that get the opportunity to do that, and only two teams are going to end the season with a win. That’s how we’re going to approach it.”
The Spartans only led twice Friday, with the Bulldogs, the state’s top-ranked team all season, darting out to an early 10-0 advantage in the game’s first two minutes.
But SJ-O proved it belonged on the state’s biggest stage, mounting a furious comeback to take its first lead early in the fourth quarter. A layup by junior guard Dalton Walsh (seven points, four assists) in the first minute of the fourth quarter put SJ-O ahead 37-36.
“They weren’t really helping, so I had the drive,” Walsh said. “I just went in and put it off the glass. It was more of a read.”
A three-pointer by junior forward Brent Schluter (14 points, eight rebounds) gave the Spartans their second — and final — lead of the night at 40-38 with 6:54 left.
“I definitely felt that we were more comfortable at the time when we got the lead,” Schluter said. “We worked our way back into it.”
Two free throws by SJ-O senior guard Aaron Woller tied the game at 42 with 4:16 remaining, but that was the last gasp for the Spartans on a night they struggled shooting the ball.
Harrisburg closed the game on an 11-1 run, sparked by a three-pointer from Bahari Amaya (13 points, six rebounds) and a layup by Capel Henshaw (13 points) in the first 40 seconds after the under-five media timeout in the fourth quarter.
“I thought the back-breaker for us was Amaya’s shot,” Brooks said. “He made a big one.”
Nate Michael made sure the SJ-O faithful had plenty of reason to cheer at the end of the third quarter when he made a deep three-pointer from the right wing with three seconds left to cut Harrisburg’s lead to 36-35, the slimmest lead for Harrisburg all game up to that point.
“As a team we felt like we could play with them,” said Michael, who finished with 11 points but only made 4 of 19 from the field, “but I guess it was just history repeating itself. At the start of the game, it felt like the Robinson game from a year ago (SJ-O lost 57-32 to Robinson in a sectional semifinal game). We just couldn’t dig ourselves out of the hole.”
The Spartans had a 6-0 run in the third quarter to trim their deficit to 31-26 with 4:16
left. Senior forward Louis Acklin propelled the spurt by taking two charges. Senior Corbin Hesterberg keyed the comeback effort with
a game-high nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end, to go along with four points.
“Corbin was just outstanding on the glass,” Brooks said. “He was everywhere. Louis struggled at times offensively, but the charges he took were just big momentum shifts.”
SJ-O only made 17 of 59 (29 percent) from the field, including 6 of 25 (24 percent) from three-point range. Harrisburg, conversely, shot 19 of 36 (53 percent) for the game.
“A lot of that is attributed to their defense,” Brooks said. “I thought they were very physical defensively, and they were stronger athletes. That caused a lot of that. Some of our dribble drives, they bumped us off, and we had a hard time getting really clean looks in the post. When you can’t get clean looks inside, that doesn’t open up things on the outside. We were shooting some tough shots on the outside, too.”