BENTON — The aroma emanating from Rich Herrin Gymnasium Tuesday night was the sweet smell of success — sweet, as in Sweet 16.
The 31-2 Rangers knocked off Cahokia, 48-43, in sectional action to earn their first Sweet 16 berth since 2003.
The Rangers didn’t put the game away until just nine seconds remained. Timmy Henson rebounded a Cahokia miss with time expiring and was immediately fouled. He added both free throws, but in the final analysis, the rebound was as big, or perhaps the bigger play.
“I thought the key to it was we kept them off the offensive glass,” said Benton coach Ron Winemiller. “We held them to nine offensive rebounds. We said anything under 15 we had a really good chance to win. To hold them to nine was to me, the key to the game.”
Winemiller’s intuition proved particularly prescient when the Rangers uncharacteristically struggled at the free throw line.
Benton took a 33-30 edge into the fourth quarter. The Comanches stayed close, but when Derek Oxford hit a free throws with 1:18 remaining, the Rangers had a six-point lead.
Cahokia was able to slice the lead to two points when Richard Robinson hit a runner in the lane at the 58 second mark. But, Benton was able to cling to the lead by hitting five-of-eight free throws in the final minute, 10-of-17 in the quarter – including Henson’s clutch shots.
“That’s very uncommon for this group,” Winemiller said. “We’re normally a pretty good free throw shooting team. We had the guys at the line we wanted. Unfortunately, they didn’t go in. Hopefully, that’s our one hiccup in that area and we’ll put that away for Friday.”
And, Cahokia willingly sent the Rangers to the line in the final minute. Their strategy of quick fouls nearly worked.
“We thought the way we played defense their legs would be tired and they wouldn’t make free throws,” said Cahokia coach Darien Nash. “It worked a little bit. We just didn’t make shots.”
And, that was the refrain Nash kept coming back to — the Comanches didn’t make shots when the game was on the line.
“We got the inside looks,” Nash said. “They didn’t limit us. We just didn’t make shots. They didn’t stop us from shooting. We just didn’t make shots.”
And, Nash was unhappy with the way his team started the second half.
A late 7-0 run by the Comanches gave Cahokia a 24-20 cushion at halftime. However, the Comanches committed three turnovers in the first three minutes of the second half, fueling a 6-0 Benton run.
Cahokia never regained the lead.
“We had the lead coming out of halftime by four,” Nash said. “We had three turnovers. That’s unacceptable.”
Austin Wills led the Rangers with 14 points while Parker Williams scored 11. Thomas Bell had 11, the lone Comanche to reach double figures.
The Rangers will attempt to win their first sectional title since 2003 when they face Breese Central or Centralia in the championship game.