HERSCHER — Despite maintaining a two-possession lead for the majority of Wednesday evening's Herscher Class 3A Regional semifinal, the veteran Streator Bulldogs were unable to completely shake a young and athletic Pontiac Indians squad.
The first time the Indians were able to build a two-possession advantage of their own, however, they quickly took complete control.
Sub-sectional No. 5 seed Pontiac ended third-seeded Streator's season Wednesday here in Herscher with a come-from-behind, 61-54 victory. The Bulldogs (19-9) led throughout but never comfortably, and eventually Pontiac's team athleticism and depth — along with an increasingly frustrating and costly closing three and a half minutes for Streator — propelled the Indians (16-12) on to Friday's title game against the host Tigers.
The Bulldogs' all-senior starting five led the SHS attack. Mitch Vickers poured in a team-high 17 points, big man Wes Jolly finished with a double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds, Noah Mascal added seven points, while Joey Byers and John Benckendorf each closed out their Bulldogs careers with three points and four assists in a game Streator led but never controlled.
"I think we did a good job surviving that first half and holding onto a lead ..." said Bulldogs coach Beau Doty, "but a few little things kept us from extending it to close out the first half or start the third quarter. Still, we're in semi-control of the game and had a couple possessions maybe up four where we went cold for a while there ... but late, especially, we got good shots and got to the rim, but just couldn't get finishes ... and we weren't able to stay with them.
"We were right there with a really good team and gave ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter. We just couldn't quite get it done."
Pontiac sophomore Ryan Weir scored a game-high 18 points to lead the Indians, seconded by junior Ben Schuler's 13 points. Schuler's 13 included a key 3 and seven straight made free throws over the final 3 minutes, 44 seconds to first catch, then pass, then ultimately pull away from the Bulldogs via a game-flipping, back-breaking 12-0 run which transformed a 51-49 Streator lead after a Mascal putback with 3:28 remaining into a 61-51 Indians advantage in the closing minute.
The win is Pontiac's eighth in its last nine outings.
"My guys have been battle-tested all year," Pontiac coach Durrell Robinson said. "We've had plenty of comebacks ... we've always come back, so we know if the game is close in the fourth quarter, it's never over, and it's usually advantage us.
"The guys gained more and more confidence as the game kept going, and in the fourth quarter when we finally tied it again, we kind of knew it was our moment."
Streator took its first lead at 8-5 on a Benckendorf trey off a Byers assist 2 minutes, 24 seconds in. A Jolly bucket at the end of the first and another 3, this one from senior Hunter Telford, at the start of the second gave SHS its first two-possession advantages.
The 'Dogs would stay ahead throughout the second quarter as well as much of the second half until caught for good at 51-51 with 3:02 remaining, then passed on a pair of Schuler free throws with 2:18 left on the clock. A rash of turnovers and missed open shots plagued Streator from there, allowing Pontiac to pull away.
"Here and there, we had too many little mental lapses," Doty said. "We were just spotty, and we've talked about those things being magnified in games like this ... but I've been very blessed throughout my career to coach great kids, and this team has been one of the most enjoyable. They really got, individually and as a group, a whole heck of a lot out of their abilities.
"It's tough right now, but I really think this senior class really carved a special little place in Streator basketball history. We weren't able to get it done tonight, but I'm going to really miss this group."