Pekin’s depth proves too much for Cardinal
PACKWOOD – The Pekin and Cardinal boys’ basketball teams finished last season on opposite ends of the conference standings. Pekin had three times as many wins as losses (18-6), while Cardinal managed only two victories.
With that in mind, it came as a surprise to many in the Pekin High School gym Tuesday night that the Comets were able to trade blows with the Panthers and even grab the lead at halftime. Cardinal’s prospects for an upset bid waned in the second half as the team ran out of steam. The Panthers’ deep bench allowed head coach Ken Hutchinson to keep fresh bodies on the floor as the home team won 50-33.
Until Pekin pulled away near the end, this was an exciting back-and-forth match. Pekin’s Levi Long got the scoring started with a free throw and later a bucket, followed by a basket from Cameron Millikin off an offensive rebound. The Panthers held the Comets scoreless through the first 4:30 of the game until Gabriel Clarkson scored a basket and was fouled. Clarkson converted the three-point play to cut Cardinal’s deficit to 5-3.
Long extended the Panthers’ lead with a nice move to make it 7-3. A string of three-pointers followed that brought both Pekin and Cardinal fans to their feet. First, Cardinal hit a three to trim the deficit to one, only to see Long score his eighth point of the game on a three of his own. The Comets didn’t let that get them down as Dawson Hamm calmly stroked a trifecta on the other end to make the score 10-9 Pekin.
Cardinal takes the lead
Both teams traded buckets after that. A Cardinal player fired an airball, which fortuitously landed in Clarkson’s hands for a put-back. The team that had won only two games last year could smell a victory as it led 13-12. Pekin’s Ryan Millikin drained a three-pointer to start the second quarter, a reminder that if Pekin was to be beaten that night, it would not go down without a fight. The Comets seemed up to the challenge, though, as Zackary Steele hit a three-pointer to retake the lead for the visitors, 16-15.
Cardinal took a few ill-advised shots on its ensuing possessions, and Pekin didn’t have any luck scoring either as the score remained 16-15 for several minutes. The Comets were able to steal the ball a few times but could not turn those opportunities into points.
With a minute and a half left to play, Long drove to the basket where Hamm intercepted his shot. Hamm pleaded with the referee that he touched only the ball, but his protest went unheard as he was called for the foul. Long missed both free throws, but Pekin quickly regained possession of the ball and scored moments later to take a 17-16 lead.
Clarkson made a free throw to knot the score at 17-17, and on their next possession, the Comets found Hamm for a bucket to take a 19-17 lead into halftime.
Hutchinson said his Panthers played with high intensity but struggled to convert on layups and free throws.
“We also had three key defensive breakdowns that led to nine of Cardinal’s 19 first half points,” lamented the Panther skipper.
Pekin wears them down
Though the Comets were able to put up a good fight in the first half, the pace of the game proved too much to bear. Hutchinson was able to rotate 11 boys on the floor, whereas Cardinal’s coach Patrick Stecker had only eight boys listed on his varsity roster.
“You could tell to start the second half we looked fresh and Cardinal had nothing left in the tank,” Hutchinson said. “After being down two to start the half, we exploded with some key drives and fouls, a couple timely threes and a much better defensive focus.”
Stecker said his team competed well through the first three quarters, but he could tell the boys were getting worn out in the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, he was proud of his team’s performance.
“Defensively, I thought we did a good job of getting our hands up and taking away passing lanes,” he said. “This led to some breakaways for layups, and overall we had 10 steals [five from Trevor Albert].”
Stecker said an area that hurt Cardinal was its inability to secure rebounds, which led to numerous second-chance points for Pekin.
“They hit some timely threes in the fourth that eventual led to them pulling away and sealing the game,” said the Cardinal coach. “The good part about it was it allows us to see what worked well for us as a team and what areas we need to work on going forward.”
Ryan Millikin led the Panthers with 19 points and four rebounds. Long finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. Cameron Millikin and Caleb Comstock each had six points, while Comstock added four assists. Chase Eckley had five points and three rebounds.
Clarkson was the Comets’ leading scorer with 13 points on 4-6 shooting to go with nine rebounds, an assist and a steal. Albert had seven points, five rebounds, five steals and three assists. Steele scored six points with two rebounds, two steals and two assists. Grant Clark scored two points and had one rebound and a steal.
Cardinal will look to rebound from its loss when it hosts Central Lee Friday, while Pekin travels to Mediapolis that same day.