Warriors eliminate Panthers in district finalHigh stakes and a crazed crowd bring vibrant energy to rivalry game
Will Mertens cut off the pass and made a break down the court.
Mertens hit the paint, made a jab step left and floated the ball up into the hoop. Pekin fans screamed for a travel, but were not offered one. The basket by Mertens capped off an essential 9-0 second quarter Van Buren run in the Warriors’ intense 52-47 Class 1A district final victory over Pekin Thursday at Davis County High School in Bloomfield.
Seats in the cozy gymnasium were sparse for this playoff rivalry matchup, forcing some to stand in entranceways and others to sit behind poles. The crowd noise was deafening at times.
“It was loud out there,” Van Buren guard Garrett Saunders said. “Both sides were full. It almost hurt your ears.”
The game began with a three-pointer from Pekin (19-4) senior guard Cade Millikin. Millikin’s performance was critical for both teams. First off, Van Buren’s focus was to slow down Pekin big men Brody Long and Jared Bond inside. This resulted in the Panthers taking more outside shots than normal. Millikin and fellow senior guard Petie Clubb took those shots.
“We had to do something because their kids inside are big burly kids, and we’re not that big,” Van Buren coach Fred Parsons said. “I thought our game plan was excellent with how we defended them.”
However, Millikin and Clubb were up to the task. Millikin’s 24 points and five three-point baskets kept the Panthers in the game, and Clubb (who scored 10 points) hit a key three-point shot in the third quarter to cut the Van Buren lead in half. Pekin coach Ken Hutchinson praised his guards, but is disappointed that the Warriors were able to take away what Pekin does best: dominate under the basket.
“We didn’t act quick enough to be able to get it inside, and as a result, we settled for more perimeter shots than we were comfortable taking,” Hutchinson said. “[Cade] helped stretch the defense, which allowed for a chance to enter the ball inside, but again, our inability to quickly enter the ball in the post hurt us.”
Van Buren attempted to tire out Pekin’s bigs with speed and drives to the hoop. Saunders, who has felt sick the last two games, felt the game plan was executed perfectly.
“We felt that our best offense against [their size] was to drive to the basket and get layups or dump it off,” Saunders said.
During the third quarter, one such drive and pass resulted in a dunk for Fitzsimmons that brought half the gymnasium to its feet. No head start was needed as he simply caught the pass, elevated, then slammed it down. Fitzsimmons had more dunk opportunities, but most of the time he decides in favor of the layup.
The second half went back and forth. Fitzsimmons would get the best of Long, then Long would come right back with a block. A key play came late in the fourth with the Warriors up three. Van Buren senior Tanner Smith drove into Bond, resulting in a blocking foul and not a charge. Smith’s shot went in and he made his free throw, which gave the Warriors a six-point advantage.
“I saw him set up a little late and I just tried to go into him,” Smith said. “He’s a big kid and a really good defensive player, but I’m glad it went my way.”
Smith had four fouls at the time. A call the other way would have sent the six-foot-four-inch senior out of the game and given Pekin an immense height advantage.
“I’ve been thinking about getting to this point all season,” Smith said. “You can’t hold anything back at that point. You [have] to go 100 percent.”
Fitzsimmons finished with 13 points and Mertens scored 12. Fellow Van Buren starters Saunders, Smith and Brandon Plecker each scored nine points. Long completed his third straight playoff double-double, finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Bond scored two points and grabbed six rebounds.
“To win a conference championship was incredible this year, especially with a bunch of guys that don’t play basketball together year round,” Hutchinson said. “It was a fun year. It’s sad that it’s over too soon.”
Van Buren (21-3) will play Saturday in Oskaloosa in the substate game against No. 9 Keota (23-1). Keota defeated B-G-M (Brooklyn) 57-52 in to win its district. The atmosphere Saturday will likely not be as intense, but the stakes will be higher.
“If we make state the games will be just like this,” Saunders said. “Tonight was good preparation for that.”
The winner earns one of the eight spots in the state tournament.