Boys basketball: Eastland rallies from 19 points down, falls short vs. Pecatonica in 1A sectional final

Cougars draw within 4 points late in 4th quarter before Indians pull away for good

Eastland's Adam Awender (12) drives to the basket against Pecatonica during the championship game of the 1A River Ridge sectional on Friday, March 1, 2024.

HANOVER – Midway through the third quarter of Friday’s Class 1A River Ridge Sectional championship, Eastland trailed Pecatonica by 19 points.

The Indians had all the momentum on their side, and the Cougars’ championship hopes looked bleak.

But seemingly in the blink of an eye, Pecatonica’s 19-point lead dwindled to four with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The Indians (31-5) dug deep in the final minutes, and with some timely free throws and baskets, finished a 60-50 win to claim the sectional championship.

“I feel like we were being careless with the ball. That 1-2-2 was killing us for a little bit, but once we settled in, got it to the middle of the floor, it was easy from there,” said Pecatonica junior guard Jaxon Diedrich, who finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. “I had no doubts [we would win despite the Eastland rally]. This team, we’ve seen them all year, all summer. We have the toughest schedule in 1A, so I knew we were built for this, and we came out on top.”

Pecatonica jumped out to a 13-8 lead in the first quarter and expanded it to 32-17 at the half. A 19-9 second quarter run put the Cougars behind the eight ball.

Diedrich scored eight points and senior guard Tyler Bird scored all seven of his points off the bench during the second quarter surge.

“We just weren’t talking enough on defense,” Eastland junior guard Adam Awender said. “We were letting [Pecatonica junior guard Cooper] Hoffman drive to the basket – that forced us to collapse – and the guys outside were hitting shots after he kicked it out.”

Eastland's Trevor Janssen (11) protects the basketball from a Pecatonica player during the championship game of the 1A River Ridge sectional on Friday, March 1, 2024 in Hanover.

The Indians were rolling early in the third quarter as well, going up 42-23 on a free throw by Hoffman with 3:44 remaining. But with its season on the line, Eastland (26-10) made a furious rally – and gave itself a fighting chance to win.

A 7-0 run in the last two minutes drew the Cougars within 44-34. Senior forward Trevor Janssen sank a layup and a free throw and Awender finished back-to-back steals with fast break layups to make it a 10-point game with 18 seconds left.

“I’m so proud of these boys. We all work so hard every game, every practice, and tonight we really showed it,” Janssen said. “It’s so hard to come back when you’re down by that much, but we all stayed positive and worked so hard, so I applaud them all.”

Pecatonica senior guard Mason Peterson hit a buzzer-beater 3 to end the quarter leading 47-34, but the Cougars were unfazed.

Only 16 seconds into the fourth quarter, Awender went coast to coast off another steal, then sophomore forward Parker Krogman and Janssen each finished layups off their own steals to draw within 47-40 with 5:31 left.

Awender followed with a free throw, then made a layup after a spin move and pump fake. Junior guard Peyton Spears went coast to coast off a steal to cut it to 49-45 with three minutes left.

Eastland’s 22-7 extended run from the third quarter to the fourth spanned 9:38.

“It shows that we’re never going to give up,” Awender said about the second half rally. “It doesn’t matter who you are, who we’re playing, how much we’re down by, how much we’re up by, we’re always going to give it 100%.”

Pecatonica scored the next five points with a free throw from junior guard Jordan Gassman, two free throws from Hoffman and a layup by Peterson, then Eastland got within six points, 56-50, on a top-of-the-key 3 by Awender with 12.1 seconds left.

But it was too little, too late.

Diedrich and Peterson iced the game with two free throws each in the last 11 seconds.

“I think at the start of the year, no one really thought that we were going to amount to too much. We didn’t go too far last year,” Janssen said. “Then this year, I think we really showed everybody who we truly are, and I’m proud of everybody for that.”

Awender led Eastland with a game-high 21 points and three steals, while Janssen chipped in 15 points and five rebounds in his final high school game. Spears compiled four points, four rebounds and three steals, Krogman supplied five points and eight rebounds and sophomore guard Braden Anderson added three points and four rebounds for the Cougars.

Hoffman tallied 14 points and seven rebounds; Peterson collected 10 points, four rebounds and two steals; and Gassman contributed six points, five rebounds and four assists for Pecatonica.

Eastland's Peyton Spears (20) looks to the basket against Pecatonica in the championship game of the 1A River Ridge sectional on Friday, March 1, 2024 in Hanover.
Dan Wussow

Dan Wussow

Dan is the sports editor for Sauk Valley Media. Previously, he wrote for The Post-Crescent in his hometown of Appleton, WI.