NORMAL – Erin Henze kept Eastland within shouting distance, then Dani Rush really gave the Cougars something to shout about.
Rush’s free throws with 5.1 seconds remaining lifted Eastland to a 64-63, come-from-behind victory against Tri-County in the first semifinal at the IHSA Class 1A Girls State Basketball Tournament on Friday in Redbird Arena.
The win gave the program its first appearance in the championship game.
The Cougars fought back from a seven-point deficit in the final 3 minutes. Henze started the run with a 3 at the 2:42 mark to get her club within four points at 58-54. The last of her state-finals-record-tying six 3-pointers came with 40 seconds on the clock to put Eastland up 62-61.
Henze scored 20 of her game-high 25 points in the second half.
“I think I knew I had to step up toward the end of the game,” Henze said. “Lydia [Coatney] and Karlie [Krogman] and Meredith [Janssen] kind of took care of it in the first couple of quarters. When that died down a little, I knew I needed to step it up offensively.”
Tri-County (29-5) regained the lead at 63-62 after two free throws from Tayler Barry with 21.4 seconds remaining.
After a 15-foot jumper by Henze was blocked by the Titans’ Kierten Price-Wilson with 10s remaining, Tri-County’s Grace Burnside grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Rush with 6 seconds to play.
Burnside, however, missed both free throws, Rush grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Bella Dudley with 5.1 seconds to go.
Rush, who was a 59.6 percent (28-for-47) free-throw shooter entering the game, calmly sank both shots to give Eastland a 64-63 lead.
“I just knew I had to do it,” Rush said. “Everybody was counting on me, and everybody else played their role in the game, so now it was my chance to do my job and help my team.”
Tri-County had one last chance, but that went away when Barry stepped out of bounds while dribbling the ball near the sideline with 1.4 seconds to go.
Barry, who led her team with 22 points, eight rebounds and four steals, felt she was nudged on the play.
“In my opinion, I definitely was pushed out,” Barry said. “It’s what the official saw, so I guess I stepped out.”
The closest player to Barry was Coatney, who was running with her hands up and her back to the ball-handler just to Barry’s left.
“I would have died if I would have gotten that foul called on me,” Coatney said. “I would do anything to not let that happen, so I was just running down the floor with my arms up.”
Tri-County scored the last eight points of the first half, capped by a buzzer-beating jumper from Price-Wilson, to seize a 32-29 halftime advantage. The Titans continued to have a safe working margin for the majority of the second half, until Eastland’s closing surge.
Tri-County’s last field goal came at the 6:39 mark of the fourth quarter – a jumper from Burnside that gave her team a 51-46 lead.
“We hang our hat on our defense,” Eastland coach Nicole Brinker said. “I can’t say we were really happy with our defense the first half, but when it came down to it, they did what they needed to do defensively and got the stops and got the rebounds they needed. These kids are tough as nails, and they have been all year.”
Henze was the Cougars’ go-to player at crunch time. She drained four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to bring her team back from a seven-point deficit.
“I could not get through the screens when I was guarding number 21 [Henze],” Barry said. “I definitely should have fought through them so she wouldn’t have gotten so many 3s. We would have had it.”
“When the ball is in Henze’s hands toward the end of the game, we’ve always got a shot,” Brinker said.
Coatney finished with 19 points, four rebounds and four steals, while Krogman added 10 points and a game-high 12 boards. Janssen chipped in six points and eight rebounds.
Tayler Barry had 22 points, eight rebounds, four steals and three assists to lead Tri-County, while Price-Wilson was a beast inside with 18 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots. Dudey came off the bench to add 11 points.
The Titans played much of the second half without senior guard Harley Barry, Tayler’s sister, as she was saddled with foul trouble. Harley Barry did contribute five points, six assists and five steals before fouling out with 2:32 to play.
“She’s our main girl,” Tri-County coach Joe Morrisey said, “and when she goes out, we’re a different team.”