Class 3A regional final with Pontiac defeating host Herscher

Pontiac was very close to winning a regional title last year, falling to Morris. Two years ago, it was a freaky five-point play against Peotone that doomed the Indians.
    But this time, it was a cool drive and experience in tough games that carried the Tribe past the host Tigers as PTHS won the Class 3A Herscher Regional crown with a 57-52 decision.
    “Getting knocked out in the regional championship last year and coming in this year, it feels good,” PTHS senior Alden Rutledge said of winning the school’s first boys’ basketball regional in four years. “Chemistry was the difference. We’re just a big family. That’s been the biggest change from last year.”
    “We started playing as a team,” senior Tyler Rich added. “Last year, we were all individuals. We decided we were going to be one unit and not different class levels. We came together, we worked hard all year, defense, and it worked out.”
    The biggest factor in a Pontiac team winning just four games a year ago to now heading into a sectional with a 17-12 record is the leadership at the top.
    Durrell Robinson got the job over the summer after Brandon Martin resigned. With the new face came a new approach.
    “It’s been a big help with Coach and all his positive approach,” Rutledge said. “The atmosphere was a lot better, the coaches have been positive.
    “All the seniors this year, it’s definitely been a better culture. The juniors stepped up, the sophomores have been a big help. It’s been a big jump.”
    The Indians started off strong with a decisive win over Ottawa at Thanksgiving. The Tribe then tanked for a bit before finally getting a good look at what it will take to be a success. It came in the form of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.
    Although the Indians were 0-2, there was still learning that took place.
    “We picked it up halfway through Simeon and carried it through Bloom and it’s been going since then,” Rich said of the Tribe’s push to Friday’s championship.
    “Being able to play against Simeon, which is one of the top 10 programs in the country, and following that with a talented Bloom team just elevated us,” Robinson said. “It gave us a chance see what we really needed to work on and at what level we needed to compete at.”
    Pontiac was able to compete at the highest level on Friday, and did so in a similar manner to its semifinal win two days before. It was defense, which Robinson said was the key factor, that did the trick. It was an illustration of the adage that defense wins championships that prevailed.
    Like Wednesday against Streator, there was no panic in the Indians after falling behind Herscher in this game. The Tigers really didn’t get too far ahead. Their biggest lead was 19-11 with a minute to go in the first quarter after a Luke Cross 3-pointer.
    The Indians were down 19-12 at the end of the first period even after holding a 9-2 advantage early. PTHS did not even pull even with Herscher until the second half of the fourth quarter.
    “Six-point game, there’s nothing to panic about,” Robinson said. “These kids did a great job keeping their composure. They were ready for the moment. They accepted the challenge.”
    The challenge was making that final push to win the championship. Trailing 46-40 after 6-foot-8 Tyler Stuart buried a 3-pointer for the Tigers, Pontiac focused on the task at hand and began to rally.
    Carter Dawson, one of those sophomores who has meant so much, scored on a break. Michael Davis, a junior new to the varsity this season, hit a free throw. And Ryan Weir, the other sophomore who,like Dawson, was a starter at the end of last season, scored in the low post to make it a 46-45 game.
    Herscher head coach Ron Oloffson used a timeout and worked a play that led to a Tyler Jarnigan trey. Once again, it appeared, the Tigers were getting that big basket.
    But that was it. Weir went to work and made two free throws with 3:33 left and then added a basket to knot the game at 49-49 with 3:05 remaining.
    The only question was: Can Pontiac keep it going?
    The answer was an emphatic YES!
    An underlying factor was that the Indians had just played Herscher a week ago, on this same floor. There was nothing there to cause alarm.
    “They just beat us (last) Friday, we knew how good a team they were,” Robinson said. “We knew if we had a chance it was going to be on the defensive end. We had to stick the process. The guys did a great job sticking to the game plan, especially in the fourth quarter, buckling down. We did the job making things happen.”
    Weir got a rebound on the defensive end and calmly brought the ball up the floor. He stopped just behind the 3-point line and was given a golden opportunity to put the Indians ahead for the first time since the first quarter.
    Cha-ching! Money.
    Weir swished the 3-point shot to make it 52-49.
    Herscher came back after a timeout as JT Krismanits hit a hurried trey. Although the Indians turned the ball over with 1:33 left, it was Herscher who was in a panic, forcing up tough shots that clanked.
    Dawson got a rebound on one and was fouled. He made a free throw for a one-point lead. The Tigers missed another chance and Rich got the ball to Rutledge, who was fouled. Rutledge made both tosses and the lead was getting bigger. Now it was 55-52 with 49.1 seconds remaining.
    No panic for Pontiac; big panic for Herscher. Another missed 3-pointer and another Pontiac board led to Weir going to the line with 13.8 seconds. He drained both throws and it was a 57-52 game.
    The best part for Pontiac was that Herscher had no way to stop the clock if it did score. The only thing the Indians needed to do was make the Tigers take as much time off the clock to get that tally, which never came.
    “We started off last Friday with no energy,” Rich said. “Tonight, we hit them in the mouth early and took off from there. We’ve been in those situations before, coming in from the half down and coming back. We did it tonight.”
    Weir had 25 points in leading the Indians and good balance followed. Dawson added 8 points with Rich scoring 7 and Rutledge and Ben Schuler each chipping in 6 points. Luke Fox had 3 and Clay Miller added 2 points.
    Stuart put up 14 points with Krismanits and Jarnigan each scoring 13 points for the Tigers (18-9).
    Pontiac will take on Marian Catholic on Tuesday at 7 home at the Pontiac Sectional. The other semifinal game is Wednesday with Kankakee meeting Rich East, and upset winner at home over Hillcrest.