The Chester Yellow Jackets and the Trico Pioneers left nothing on the court Tuesday night, but at the end of the game the Jackets had done what everyone expected -- win.
The final score, 61-47, doesn't do justice to the battle that this game was for three quarters, with seven tie scores and 14 lead changes. Chester finally took charge of the game in the final quarter, and now advances to the regional championship game against West Frankfort that tips off at 7 p.m. Friday in Colbert Gym.
For the Jackets being back in the regional finals is a chance for redemption.
"Our players are still heartbroken over losing last year's regional final," Coach Brad Norman said. But he is confident in them.
"I will take my team over any other team in our region, and we will battle anyone down the stretch," he declared after the Trico win. "I love this team and will take them anywhere."
#4 seed Trico won the right to go up again the #2 seed Chester by defeating #5 Red Bed on Monday, 50-41, a game that wasn't decided until the final two minutes.
Tuesday's Chester/Trico game almost got postponed, as a dangerous mixture of ice, snow, sleet and rain approached the area. The IHSA decided to go ahead, and the storm arrived just as the game was winding down.
Chester came out slow after the opening tipoff and had to fight for every point in the first quarter. Trico freshman Wilson Lodge started the scoring with a basket.
Chester's Keith Kiner III responded with a layup, then Lodge hit another two. Colin Wingerter drained a three to give the Yellow Jackets their first lead, 5-4, at 4:30.
Kiner followed with another power move down low to give Chester a 7-4 lead. Then Lodge broke a three-minute scoring drought with a field goal.
Ian Reith made a strong move to the basket for two. Trico's Jessie Smith hit a field goal at 2:06 to bring the Pioneers within one point, 9-8, and start a 5-0 Trico run. Seth Levan finished the run with a free throw and a field goal, and Trico was back up, 11-9.
Kiner closed the period with a crowd-pleasing reverse layup to tie the game, 11-11. Despite the tie, Trico left the floor with confidence, while Chester looked somewhat shocked.
The second quarter was much the same, with the Jackets still struggling to find their groove.
The first two minutes were scoreless, but Trico's Carter Naile sank a free throw at the 5:15 mark to break the tie. Just three seconds later Chester's Jakob Cushman calmly drained a pair of free throws to take back a CHS lead, 13-12.
On the next play Kiner had a monster block to get the ball back for Chester and Ian Reith was fouled on a shot and sank both free throws. Chester led 15-12, at 4:34.
Trico's Lodge hit a field goal. Kiner got another huge blocked shot, and Drake Bollman finished the job for two. The Jackets led, 17-14.
Trico's Levan sank a field goal with a minute left in the period.
The Yellow Jackets couldn't capitalize on their final possession, and gave the ball back to the Pioneers. Trico used the clock perfectly and Jessie Smith drained a three-pointer at the buzzer, sending Trico into the locker room with a one-point lead, 18-17.
Jackets take control
Head Coach Brad Norman said the Jackets did everything they could to prepare for Trico, but admitted the boys might have taken them too lightly.
"We weren't aggressive early and played timid," he said. "At halftime I told them to play hard and they finally did start to play hard in the final half."
Trico called time out just 30 seconds into the second half to avoid losing the ball on a tough Chester defensive start. Pioneer Carter Naile hit two free throws.
Wingerter answered with a field goal, but Levan hit another two, giving Trico a 21-19 lead. Kiner tied the game 21-21, but Lodge answered with a field goal to retake the Pioneer lead. With 4:59 left in the quarter, Kiner tied the game at 23-23.
Issac Kranawetter hit a free throw for Trico at 4:53. DeOndre Martin came off the bench for the Jackets and sank a free throw.
Fans were starting to get seasick. Naile hit a field goal for Trico, giving them a 26-25 lead at the 3:23 mark. Everyone in the gym was waiting for someone to take control of the game. Unfortunately for Chester, Seth Levan did that by draining a three-pointer, and Trico tied their biggest lead of the game at 28-25.
Ian Reith, however, started the turn in momentum by hitting back-to-back free shots to bring the Jackets back within one point, 28-27 at the 2:10 mark.
That seemed to motivate the entire Yellow Jacket squad and just 20 seconds later, Keith Kiner made a monster slam dunk, making the basket shake. It proved to be a game changer, as Chester retook the lead, 29-28.
Trico would tie the game twice more at 29-29 (1:25) and 31-31 (0.20), but Colin Wingerter would give Chester the lead for good at the buzzer, draining a pretty three-pointer.
The entire Colbert Gym was rocking to begin the fourth quarter.
It turned to be almost all Chester, as the Jackets took it to the Pioneers 27-16 -- with no more ties and no more lead changes.
Chester opened with an 8-1 run that put the Jackets up by 10 points, 42-32 at the 5:45 mark. Trico's Jessie Smith stopped the bleeding with a field goal at 5:25.
Colin Wingerter hit a field goal at 4:38 and Drake Bollman sank one of two free throws at 4:20 to give CHS its biggest lead of the game at 11 points, 45-34.
Wilson Lodge, one of Trico's leading offensive threats with 11 points, fouled out with 3:39 to play in the game. That was a major blow to Trico's confidence and firepower.
Wingerter, who was fouled when Lodge fouled out, made both of his free throws and the Jackets increased their lead to 13 points, 47-34.
Issac Kranawetter broke the Pioneers dry spell with two free throws at 3:44 to narrow Chester's lead to 11 points, 47-36. Bollman answered with a field goal and was fouled. He made his free throw and Chester led, 50-36 with 3:01 remaining.
Nick Compton scored for Trico at 2:28, but Kiner answered with a field goal. Seth Levan knocked down a pair of free throws at 1:53.
Ian Reith then began a 5-of-6 free throw shooting exhibition in the final 1:51. CHS again led by 14 points, 54-40.
Trico's Jessie Smith drained a 3-pointer at 1:25 and brought the Pioneers back within 11. With 1:09 to play Jakob Cushman hit a Chester free throw, Trico's Nick Compton sank a two-pointer and Reith hit another free throw.
Kranawetter scored what would be Trico's last points, a pair of free throws.
At the 41-second mark Drake Bollman completed a traditional three-point play with a field goal and free throw. Chester led, 59-47. Trico's Nick Compton fouled out of the game, and Reith hit both free throws. That was the game.
The Yellow Jackets were led by Keith Kiner III (18), Colin Wingerter (16) and Ian Reith (13). Other offensive contributors were Drake Bollman (9), Jakob Cushman (3) and DeOndre Martin (2).
In the win Chester had 34 points on field goals, just six points on two 3-pointers, and 21 points from the free throw line. The Jackets shot 72 percent at the line (21-of-29) and Ian Reith made 15 of 17 free throws.
Trico had two players in double figures; Wilson Lodge (11) and Seth Levan (11). Other contributors were included Jessie Smith (9), Carter Naile (7), Issac Kranawetter (5), and Nick Compton (4). The Pioneers were 12 of 21 from the free throw line.
"We had several players demonstrate leadership tonight to help get us rolling," Coach Norman said after the game. "In the huddle Drake Bollman got the team fired up. Keith Kiner wanted the ball. He was not afraid to demand the ball and Colin Wingerter stepped up and wanted the ball. In the second half the seniors demonstrated the leadership that made the difference."
Norman said Kiner's "massive" dunk in the third quarter got everyone fired up.
"He was authoritative and wanted to make a statement On that dunk both feet left the floor, and with one hand it was the Keith Kiner show!"
Norman said the Jackets would prepare for Friday's championship game against West Frankfort by playing loud music during practice ... to prepare for what undoubtedly will be a raucous crowd.
Norman added that West Frankfort is playing their best ball right now.
"We will stress playing more loosely right out of the gate. We will watch film and focus on our various strengths and weaknesses."
With the win, Chester improves to 26-5 record for the season, with a 17-game winning streak.