NORMAL | Sometimes the best-laid plans can take a while in coming together.
“Our game plan, we probably changed it five times before the tip-off,” Mount Pulaski basketball coach Eric Leever said of his team’s preparation for Friday’s Class 1A state semifinal against Cowden-Herrick at Redbird Arena.
“Before we came out of the locker room for the game, we still weren’t even sure. We were still talking about it on the bench.”
They even talked about it some more at halftime. That’s when a change in strategy paid off, as the Hilltoppers overcame a miserable close to the second quarter and a nine-point halftime deficit to beat Cowden-Herrick, 49-41, and advance to today’s 2 p.m. state title game against defending champion Freeport Aquin.
Following the win, Mount Pulaski, which co-ops with Hartsburg-Emden, had about 22 hours to prepare for defending champion Freeport Aquin and Sophie Brunner, the Bulldogs’ all-state standout. Aquin advanced with a thrilling 39-38 victory over Annawan in Friday’s first game.
The Hilltoppers had three days to prepare for Cowden-Herrick’s all-stater, Micah Jones. The initial plan, finalized as they were walking onto the floor for the opening tip-off, worked well early as Mount Pulaski took a 10-9 first-quarter lead and increased it to 14-9 in the first two minutes of the second period.
The remainder of the second quarter was another matter, however. Jones was able to come alive midway through the period and lead to Bulldogs on a 15-1 scoring run to close out the half with a nine-point advantage.
“I thought the first quarter we came out and executed pretty well and limited some touches for Micah,” Leever said. “Second quarter, I don’t think we rebounded very well. We had some mental breakdowns, and we had some unforced turnovers that I think hurt us a little bit.”
After being held scoreless in the first quarter, Jones scored nine of her game-high 21 points in the second, sending Mount Pulaski (29-4) back to the drawing board at intermission.
“We talked about some things we had to do, to change, to get back to what we did in the first quarter,” Leever said.
The new plan worked wonders for the Hilltoppers, who forced five early third-quarter turnovers and were back within two points before four minutes had elapsed.
“They put more pressure up on top, and we didn’t quite take the ball to the bucket like we did (in the first half),” Cowden-Herrick coach Carolyne Wendte said. “They made the defensive shift, and we just didn’t adjust. They took us out of the flow of the game, and we didn’t handle the ball well.”
Mount Pulaski tied the game at 28-28 with 2:01 left in the third quarter on a huge 3-point bucket from the right perimeter by Erika Leever, the coach’s daughter. Another 3-pointer by Andrea Dickerson, who led the Hilltoppers with 18 points, brought Mount Pulaski to within 32-31 at the end of the quarter.
The Hilltoppers were finally able to regain the lead on a pair of fourth-quarter free throws by Jessica Awe, who scored 15 points and had a huge steal and lay-in down the stretch to help Mount Pulaski pull away. Awe and Dickerson also converted 4-of-6 free throws in the closing minute to preserve the win.
“We had some huge shots that we knocked down in the third and fourth quarter,” Eric Leever said. “They kept their composure at the end, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Aquin 39, Annawan 38: Brunner had 21 points and 12 rebounds, including a go-ahead jump shot with six seconds left, to lead top-ranked Aquin past No. 2 Annawan in the first semifinal.
The 6-foot-1 Brunner, a first-team all-stater, was 10-of-14 from the field. Aquin (30-3) outscored Annawan 15-11 in the fourth quarter.
Annawan was led by freshman Morgan VanHyfte’s 16 points. Her all-state sister, junior Celina VanHyfte, added 12 points and five rebounds for the Bravettes (29-3).