PEORIA — After five straight losses at the state tournament in Peoria, the Nashville Hornets finally left Carver Arena with smiles on their faces.
The Hornets will play for their first state basketball title since 1978 after overwhelming Petersburg PORTA 62-43 in the semifinals as senior Clint Johannes led the way with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
One of Johannes' favorite players growing up was former Nashville all-state forward Lucas O'Rear, who helped the Hornets to two state tourneys.
"It's been fun watching Lucas and always kind of looking up to him and that team, thinking one day maybe that could be me," said Johannes, whose team has won nine in a row. "Now it is and it's just great."
Royce Newman added 14 points and Keegan Anderson had 12 for the Hornets (27-7), who ran away from the Bluejays thanks to a 17-0 scoring spree in the first half.
Nashville will face Bloomington Central Catholic (26-6) in the state championship game at 8:15 p.m. Saturday. Central Catholic edged Providence St. Mel 51-45 in the other 2A semifinal.
"Nashville's got great tradition," Hornets coach Brad Weathers said. "Coach (Darin) Lee, my predecessor, was up here five straight times and got to the Elite 8 in a two-class system.
"(There's) a lot of tradition, a lot of expectations and the community support is really good. Southern Illinois basketball is still really fun."
Twenty-five years ago, Weathers guided the Carlyle Indians to the Class A state championship. Now he's got another team knocking on the door and hoping for the same result.
"It's tough for some of these kids to even think about it, that's before they were born," Weathers said. "Still, that's our goal. Our goal is to win one more game -- and we've been talking about that since the regional tournament."
PORTA (26-6) seemed extremely bothered by Nashville's decided height advantage and the Hornets' ever-moving 1-2-2 zone defense that blanketed much of the floor.
Of course, the Hornets' "TripTowers" big man trio of the 6-foot-7 Johannes, 6-7 Newman and 6-6 Dylan Mueller kept getting their impossibly long arms in the way all night.
"We've seen some height, but we haven't seen height like that," said PORTA's Nic Sinclair, who scored a team-high 15 points. "We usually get some good shots and some good looks, but their length caused us to move the ball slower. By the time we had a chance to get a shot off, they were already in our eyes."
The Bluejays were held to 4-of-18 shooting in the first half and also committed seven turnovers to just two by the Hornets.
A 3-pointer by Petersburg's Nate Hopper gave the Bluejays a 9-7 lead late in the first quarter before the Hornets quickly slammed the door in their face.
Nashville embarked on a 17-0 run to push its lead to 24-9, holding Petersburg PORTA scoreless until the 2:02 mark of the second quarter. Shots by Hunter Beetley, Johannes and Newman helped fuel the run as the Hornets took a 26-11 lead into the locker room at halftime.
"We were very concerned with their five-guard offense," Weathers said. "I thought we were able to get out and use our length against their shooters."
Johannes began hammering away inside again in the third quarter scoring eight of his 20 points during that span. The smaller Bluejays could only watch, then take the ball out again and head the other way.
"That's just normally how it is for me," Johannes said of his confidence around the rim. "If I get my first few shots to go I can normally get on a roll and start doing more. Everything was just clicking for us there in the second quarter and we all just tried to stop them on defense.
"That led to a lot of offensive points for us."
There was no secret Nashville was trying to exploit the soft middle of the PORTA defense with its extreme height.
Nashville outscored the Bluejays 20-6 on second-chance points as they pounded the offensive glass, also outscoring PORTA 44-18 in the paint.
"We were always looking inside first," Weathers said. "We're an inside-out team and we take what the defense gives us. Tonight, fortunately, we had quite a size advantage throughout the forward spots and the center spot."