It wasn’t the outcome for which the Sesser-Valier players hoped, but it was the setting that they wanted.
Tuesday night’s 79-69 loss to Moweaqua Central A&M might still be stinging the Red Devils, more than 24 hours after the fact. They definitely wanted to be the school’s first team since 2014 to make the trip to Peoria for Friday’s semifinals.
But Sesser-Valier lost with valor. It could have bagged the game’s last 10 minutes after falling behind 49-31 to a team that it might not have beaten once if it were a best-of-seven series. It was still trailing 71-55 with 2:03 left.
If it were Monday Night Football in the 1970s, Don Meredith would have already crooned “Turn out the lights.” Yet the Red Devils played it out masterfully, and actually had a chance to make it a two-possession game with about 25 seconds left.
“I think our performance in the fourth quarter to cut that lead down just shows the heart this team has,” senior Seth Boles said. “The grit that we had even though we were down 18 points … I’m proud of every single one of those guys in the locker room.”
Boles set quite an example. The 6-3 forward fought an uphill battle literally and figuratively in this game. He was his team’s tallest starter. He would have been the smallest starter in the Raiders’ lineup.
Central A&M boasted a lineup of four guys between 6-4 and 6-6 to go along with 5-10 guard Jacob Paradee, its leading scorer Tuesday night with a game-high 26 points. Its length, athleticism and ability could have easily passed for a 2A team.
Six-five swingman Connor Heaton, who scored 21 points and got to the bucket virtually any time he desired, looked the part of a Division I recruit. His spin move for a transition layup in the third quarter bore the stamp of a TV leaguer.
It was easy to understand why the Raiders haven’t lost to a 1A team after watching them run the floor on offense while using their long arms and sound positioning push Sesser-Valier’s offense out near the midcourt line.
But to the Red Devils’ credit, they gave as good as they got, aside from a third quarter in which they couldn’t find a way to score or keep Central A&M from getting to the rim.
“We battled all night,” coach Shane Garner said. “Our guys didn’t quit. We could have folded and went to Poutville, but they kept playing. Unfortunately, we just ran out of time. It stings being so close to the state tournament, but one day, they’re going to be able to look back and realize all that we did as a team.”
Judging from the comments of Boles and leading scorer Tyler Winchester, who pumped in a team-high 23 points, it sounds like S-V players didn’t take long to put things in perspective. After all, this was a team that trailed by 13 in their regional final against Steeleville before rallying for a double overtime win.
That was part of a three-game stretch to start the postseason that saw the Red Devils scrape out victories by a combined 11 points. So while a weekend in Peoria would have been nice, they realized that the chance to finish their season in a Division I venue was a pretty good consolation prize.
“It was awesome,” Boles said. “I remember watching SIU games here and watching that 2014 team play in this gym and beat Dieterich. It’s just an awesome feeling to know that we were in that position.
“I remember looking up to that 2014 team and thinking it was the coolest thing that they got to play here. Getting that opportunity was awesome.”