Senior leads Wesclin to regional title win
Mick Stephens didn't just block Caden Heyen's shot, he spiked it into the hardwood of the Wood River-East Alton High School gym like a fullback who had just found the end zone.
The play put an authoritative halt to a late Piasa Southwestern run, helped preserve a 45-37 Warrior win, and punctuated Wesclin's second class 2A regional championship in as many seasons.
Weslin led by by as many as 13 early in the fourth quarter when Southwestern rallied to within five. Heyen, who finished with a game-high 18, could have made it a one-possession game but Stephens got a hand on his shot and put it back to the floor with authority.
"Yeah, that felt good," said Stephens, who also led the Warriors with 15. "We had a drought on offense, but we got through it. They helped on me a little bit, and I didn't make some shots. It all worked out in the end, though. It feels good."
Wesclin, 25-4 and on an eight-game winning streak, returns to the sectional round, which begins Tuesday on its home floor. The Warriors hope to improve on their one-and-done sectional appearance a year ago. They'll face Anna-Jonesboro, a 54-51 winner over Chester in the Johnston City regional.
"I'm not going to tell you we're not excited about going home for the sectional," Wesclin head coach Brent Brede said. "At the same time, we've lost some games at home. You still have to go out there, and you've still got to play."
Offensively, it was an up-and-down night for Wesclin. The Warriors shot ahead with a 14-0 run in the first quarter on 3-pointers from Stephens, Hunter Ottensmeier, Nate Brede and Brandon Courtney. They posted 12 points in the third quarter and got another 3 from Brede to widen their lead to 13 early in the fourth quarter.
But they connected on just two field goals in the second and fourth combined, while hitting on just half of their 16 free-throw attempts. Ottensmeier finished with 11, and Brede scored 10.
Wesclin finished the game 13 of 33 from the field.
Defensively, the Warriors were more consistent, a 10-3 Southwestern rally in the fourth quarter notwithstanding. The Birds shot 32.5 percent from the field with Heyen as their only scorer in double figures.
"For the most part — for the first half, especially — I don't think we gave them a lot of good looks at the basket. They had to earn what they got," coach Brede said. "I tell our players, regionals are hard to win, and we knew it would probably be a grind. It certainly ended up being that."
Stephens' block on Heyen gave Brede some relief when his team wasn't as sharp as he would've liked from the free-throw line.
"There were a lot of big plays in the game, and that was a one of them because it didn't allow them to get it to a one-possession game," he said. "I guess we made enough free throws to secure the win but not enough to feel very secure late in the game. He gave us some comfort in that regard."
Southwestern's season ends at 21-8.