Clash of the conference Titans; SJO outlasts Unity

TOLONO - There weren't a lot of open spaces in the stands to plop down and watch the ensuing epic basketball game between visiting St. Joseph-Ogden and the host Unity at the Rocket Center on Friday. While it was a mild winter's evening outside, it was the heat and humidity of a Florida spring in the near-capacity-filled gym. The air was brewing with palatable excitement as the two teams with a combined record of 45-8, each enjoying a four-game win streak heading toward tipoff, warmed up.

Unity's Dane Eisenmenger tries to keep St. Joseph-Ogden's Luke Landrus from getting deep penetation into the paint during first quarter action of their Illini Prairie Conference game on Friday. See more photos below.

Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

Unity (23-3) snagged the opening tip and it wasn't long before fans were forced to the edge of their seats by the 5's, Unity's Henry Thomas and SJO's Logan Smith. The two seniors, who later hugged after St. Joseph-Ogden (23-6) prevailed in the 73-72 overtime win, put on an impressive show of basketball skill, tenacity, and mental toughness.

"This was a fun basketball game," said Unity head coach Matt Franks. "This is what high school basketball is all about. I thought it was a great atmosphere."

Smith, who finished the contest with a game-high 29 points had five assists and three rebounds, drew first blood on a layup to momentarily put St. Joseph-Ogden in the lead on the scoreboard.

St. Joseph-Ogden head coach Kiel Duval said players like Smith, with his mindset, are tough to beat.

"It is tough to knock him down. He is an absolute winner," he said. "He has a 'refuse to lose' mentality. When you've got that, you are tough to beat."

On the next two possessions, Thomas scored in the paint giving, and Dalton O'Neill added two more points on a reverse layup to give the Rockets a 6-2 lead.

"Henry has worked really, really hard to get his game to where he can have a night like this," Frank said. Thomas finished the contest with a team-high 27 points and was four-for-eight from the charity stripe. Two Fridays earlier, the senior scored his 1,000th career point against Prairie Central at the Rocket Center. "I think it was a perfect combination of teammates moving the ball well so Henry can do what he does."

The Spartans would even the score on two free throws from Luke Landus and a jumper from junior Coy Taylor, tying the game at six-all.

After buckets from Unity's Tyler Henry and Eric Miebach, Andrew Thomas drains a trey, putting the Rockets up 13-6 with 1:20 left in the quarter. Flustered, the Spartans called a timeout.

The Rockets continued to lead on the scoreboard until Smith knotted the game at 19-all. After converting a free throw, SJO takes a 20-19 lead.

Unity shotmaking went cold after Coleton Langendorf hit his free throw to tie the game again at 20-all. Taking advantage of the lull, the Spartans make an 11-point run, going up 31-20.

In control the rest of the first half through the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, SJO held a comfortable lead on their hosts until the last four minutes and 12 seconds of regulation time when Henry Thomas racked up eight points consecutive points, trimming his team's deficit from seven to two, 64-66.

"We got into foul trouble and had some bad matchups," Duval explained. "Their best player got looks at the basket. Once we got into foul trouble, we had trouble recovering from that. We kind of went away from doing some of the stuff we did to get good looks."

With 10.7 seconds left in the game, SJO's Tanner Jacob sinks the first of two free throws and misses the insurance basket. Unity gets the rebound and the ball down to Dane Eisenminger, who pumped a shot outside the arc in front of his team's bench. The trey falls with three seconds left in regulation time, sending the game into overtime at 67-all and the Rocket Center into an unabashed frenzy.

Smith was the only player from either team to hit a field goal in overtime, helping St. Joseph-Ogden tallied six points against Unity's five to end one of the most exciting basketball games in the St. Joe-Unity rivalry.

"Both teams played really hard," Franks said. "A game like this could have gone all night. It was great basketball."

A free throw away from a second overtime, Franks said his game plan would have been to stay poised and composed if they had to go another session.

"(We would) stay in the moment. It's all about the next possession, and we'd have to just focus on that," he said. "St. Joe is a great team, and it takes a great effort to beat them."

Duval was expecting a dogfight and had no illusions, counting unhatched chickens. Earlier in the season, SJO suffered two losses in the last-second heartbreakers. The first in a non-conference game at Beecher 55-53, and the second on a buzzer-beater in the Small School Division State Farm Holiday Classic championship game to El Paso-Gridley.

"There were two good teams battling back and forth. We knew they were going to throw another punch," he said. "They are at home. They always play better at home."

Also contributing to SJO's scoring effort was Luke Landrus, who finished with 13 points, and Coy Taylor, 3-for-3 at the line, with 12 points. Tanner Siems had eight points, and Tanner Jacob drained a pair of treys and a free throw to finish with seven points.

Andrew Thomas, Henry's twin, finished with 13 points, and Dalton O'Neill, who went five-for-six on free throws, contributed 12 points. Eric Meibach (9), Dane Eisenmenger (5), Jay Saunders (3), and Tyler Henry (2) contributed in the Rockets' effort. Coleton Langendorf hit a solo free throw for one point.

"It was like a sectional championship game," Duval said, talking about the atmosphere. "That was huge. I am proud that our guys found a way to win."

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