Despite a lackluster first half, the Althoff Crusaders had the Herrin Tigers right where they wanted them.
Then in the second half, Herrin guard Brandon Anthony and the Tigers flipped that script.
Anthony knocked down eight of 10 free throws in the closing minutes and Herrin held off the Crusaders for a thrilling 60-58 win in the Class 3A regional championship Friday night at Freeburg High School.
Herrin (26-4) moves on to play East St. Louis on Tuesday in a Class 3A regional semifinal at Mascoutah.
“This is huge, this is something that we’ve been talking about since we got here as a coaching staff two years ago,” Herrin coach Sayler Shutz said. “To be able to win a regional over here and beat Columbia for our first regional win the other night and to win a regional championship here is just for the program and the community.”
In the opening 16 minutes of play, both teams struggled to find shots, as the defenses locked in early on both ends.
A 9-5 late second quarter keyed by a William Ache 3-pointer and capped by a Greg Wells’ up-and-under layup pushed Althoff to a 20-12 halftime lead. The Crusaders, despite foul trouble to Wells and Ache, were positioned to finish strong.
“I thought we responded well (in the first half). We had Greg and Will out with some fouls, but the other guys responded well,” Althoff coach Greg Leibe said. “Then we played Greg and Will some more and they played really well with the fouls.”
Ache had another strong night as he finished with a team-high 17 points. Sophomore guard Ethlyn Brown came up big Althoff as well with 15 points.
Anthony turned up the energy for Herrin and outscored the Crusaders 23-15 in the third quarter. A Luke Laquate backdoor bucket put the Tigers up 35-33 with 55 seconds left in the quarter.
Althoff tied it on a Brown basket to end a period that saw three ties and five lead changes.
“I think we were a little bit nervous the first and because of the atmosphere of the game and the second half we settled down and played our game,” Anthony said.
A bucket by Brown gave the Crusaders a 45-42 lead with 5:37 to go, but Anthony took over in the final five minutes, scoring eight of his game-high 22 points from the free-throw line to put away the regional championship for the Tigers.
“It’s amazing and I’m so happy for me and my team that everything we’ve done since the summer has led to this,” Anthony said.
Althoff got a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but the Crusaders, who lost Wells to fouls in the final three minutes, came up short.
Leib said the season was far from a disappointment as the Crusaders who finished 17-13 after posting just four wins last year.
“We had opportunities and they didn’t drop for us,” Leib said. “What a great turnaround for these kids after last year they won four games. This year they come out and the conference and win 17, so I just told them you guys did a great job of making Althoff relevant this postseason.”