The Pinckneyville Panthers have won 12 regional championships since 2001, but hadn't advanced beyond a sectional in 10 seasons.
Their drought ended in Trenton on Friday with a 56-37 win over Wesclin and the Class 2A sectional championship they clinched on the Warriors' floor.
"We've been here a few times and haven't been able to make that extra step. It's just a tribute to our kids," said Pinckneyville coach Bob Waggoner. "They've had some tough losses with four straight regional championships without being able to make it out. I just think their hunger and desire showed through tonight."
Pinckneyville advances to Carbondale Super-Sectional date with Mount Carmel, a one-point winner over Teutopolis at the Robinson Sectional. That game will be played Tuesday at 7 p.m
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Though the game was played in their gym, the Warriors hardly had the home-court advantage. The venue was filled to its 2,000-seat capacity, split down the middle between Pinckneyville blue and Wesclin orange. Many had to be shuttled in on a yellow school bus from the overflow parking at the nearby middle school, others turned away at the door due to the sellout.
It was somewhere in the middle of a three-minute Pinckneyville possession in the fourth quarter that the blue side began to chant "S-I-U ... S-I-U ..." — reference to the site of the Panthers' next step in its pursuit of its fourth state championship.
"I loved it," Waggoner said after the victory. "I hope they have to shuttle them in at SIU next week."
The Panthers held just a five-point lead at the half, but had held Wesclin to just 15 shots from the field. They also kept a Warriors team that had hit on 35 percent of its 570 three-point attempts this season (that's more than 20 per game) from making a single shot from beyond the arc.
"We took Wesclin out of the things we know they do well and we didn't give them any open 3s," Waggoner said. "We wanted to put them on their heels and make them guard. We knew they play really only five guys and maybe six max, so we thought we could work them out on both ends of the floor and they were tired."
Wesclin forward Hunter Ottensmeier took advantage of what was left open inside by banging his way to a game-high 19 points. The performance sent the 6-foot-5 senior over 1,000 points for his high school career, an achievement acknowledged by the crowd, even as the Panthers celebrated their championship.
"I'll look down in weeks, years — I don't know — but I'll look back and it will be a cool milestone," said Ottensmeier, who said he wants to continue playing in college. "If I'd have scored zero tonight and we'd have won, I'd take that over 1,000 points because these guys mean more to me than the points.
"I'd rather the wins and the championships be my legacy than just the points."
Pickneyville pulled away in the third quarter with an 11-2 run highlighted by Dawson Yates' 3-pointer with 3:07 left. The Panthers closed on a 10-2 run after holding possession for nearly three minutes beginning at the 6:01 mark of the fourth quarter.
"We had a hard time scoring. We didn't get anything from the perimeter and, while we were able to get the ball in the post to relieve the pressure, we just weren't able to score enough," said Wesclin coach Brent Brede. "The biggest difference in the game was their ability to get to the rim and they got to the rim too much. We missed assignments, but at the same time they are quick and it was hard to keep our guys in front of them."
Yates led the way for Pinckneyville with 18 points while Grant Jausel added 16. Senior J.C. Moll scored nine points, all in the fourth quarter. For the game, Pinckneyville shot 52.6 percent from the field.
Junior Nate Brede pitched in 10 points for Wesclin, which shot 15 of 31 (45 percent).
Wesclin, 26-5, fell out of the Associated Press Illinois top 10 after consecutive losses to Salem and Confluence Academy (Mo.) in late January, but rattled off nine wins in a row, including a regional championship win over Piasa Southwestern, to reach Friday's sectional championship game.