By Steve Overbey Special to The News-Democrat
VALMEYER -- Gibault junior Nick Row got the wake-up call late last month.
When the Hawks' leading scorer, junior Wes Degener, broke a finger in practice, Row felt like he had to elevate his game.
"When you lose one of your best players for the season, someone has to step up," Row said.
The 6-foot, 1-inch Row has become that someone.
On Wednesday, he pumped in a game-high 17 points to lead top-seeded Gibault to a 51-39 win over Lebanon in the semifinals of the Class 1A Valmeyer Regional at Valmeyer High School.
Gibault (23-6) won for the sixth times in its last seven games and will face second-seeded Okawville (24-6) in the championship game Friday at 7:30 p.m.
The Hawks, ranked fourth in the state, have become a more balanced team without the multi-talented Degener, who averaged a team-high 12.9 points per game.
Senior Brendan McFarland added 10 points to the winning attack. Jacob Weiler pulled down a team-high six rebounds.
Mason Christ paced fourth-seeded Lebanon (13-17) with 13 points. Zach Schoenfeld added 12 points.
Gibault struggled in the first half against the gutsy Greyhounds. Row helped steady the ship with some solid play over the final 16 minutes.
"He's really come on and he's playing well at the right time," Gibault coach Dennis Rueter said. "He's making a bigger impact when we need him to."
Row added three assists and three steals to a strong floor game.
"I feel like I've got to play harder, do whatever I can to help the team," Row said.
Row keyed a blitz in the final three minutes of the first half that enabled the Hawks to head into the break with 30-24 lead. He then canned a key 3-pointer in the third quarter that pushed their lead to 37-28.
Lebanon stayed close throughout the contest. The Gibault lead hovered between six and 11 points throughout most of the second half. The 12-point margin of victory was the largest lead for either team.
"It was just one of those games where we kind of muddled through," Rueter said. "That wasn't totally unexpected. It's regionals, you're wired up and playing a team that you're supposed to beat. But we defended well and that helped."
The Greyhounds turned in one of their finest efforts of the season for coach Chad Cruthis, who is stepping down. They took an early 8-5 lead and never let Gibault pull away.
"Nobody gave us any credit coming in, nobody talked about us," Cruthis said. "The way our kids came out and battled, I can't complain about the effort."
Gibault began pulling away in the fourth quarter. Sam Toal scored from close range and Row followed with a free throw to push its lead to 45-36. Mitch Meyer sank three foul shots in the final 47 seconds to put the game away.
The Hawks turned up the defensive pressure in the second half. Weiler recorded a pair of blocks and Toal also added another rejection.
"Defense is what got it done for us," Row said. "We knew eventually the shots would start falling."
Okawville 60, New Athens 47
The second-seeded Rockets, ranked seventh in the state, rolled to their third win in as many tries against New Athens this season.
Senior Jeremy Weeke led Okawville with 25 points. Junior Jacob Brammeier added 12 points.
Jeremy Hepp led the third-seeded Yellow Jackets (21-8) with 15 points. Tyler Meyer added 10 points.
Weeke scored 13 points in the first half to help his team to 26-18 lead.
"We got off to a good start and always had a little cushion," Okawville coach Jon Kraus said. "We did what we had to do out there."
The Rockets pushed the lead to 14 points in the second half, but New Athens closed to within eight in the fourth quarter.
"We came out with a good effort, Weeke said. "We got a lead, kept battling and got our business done."
The title game will feature a rematch of two of the top seven teams in the state rankings. Gibault beat Okawville 42-39 on Feb. 1 in Waterloo.
Gibault jumped out to a 9-1 lead in the first nine minutes of that contest and stretched the margin to 18 points in the second quarter. The Rockets missed their first 12 shots and never recovered.
"We feel like we're playing a little better now," Kraus said.
Okawville made a run in the first meeting but could not overcome the slow start.
Weeke is looking forward to another shot at Gibault.
"We're hungry now," he said. "We're glad we're in this position."
Gibault's Rueter says both teams are playing well. He is expecting a tight contest.
"I wouldn't say we're the favorite," he noted. "These are two really even teams."
A standing room only crowd is expected in Valmeyer's tiny gymnasium. Each team is allotted 300 tickets.