CHESTER -- Chester's most excellent basketball season came to a disappointing end Feb. 22 in the championship round of the 2019 IHSA Class 2A Boys Regional Tournament.
A packed house was in Colbert Gym to support the Jackets in their bid to advance to the Du Quoin Sectional Tournament. Chester was the favorite coming into the title game and was seeded No. 1 in the Chester Regional, with West Frankfort seeded #2.
But it was West Frankfort's stifling defense and their fast-paced play that ultimately undid the Yellow Jackets in what was a record-breaking season for them. The Jackets trailed 11-4 after the first quarter and 26-12 at the half, and while Coach Brad Norman made adjustments at the break and the players picked it up, it was too little, too late. West Frankfort never trailed.
"Their defense was what we expected, but they were successful at speeding us up," Norman said after the game. "We thought we could answer that and have been successful doing that most of the year, we just couldn't get shots to fall."
From the opening tipoff West Frankfort smothered Chester with its defense. Every Chester movement was covered and challenged. Each pass was contested and several Chester players were constantly double and triple-teamed throughout the night.
The result was a Chester squad that struggled most of the first half to even run a play or get a good look at the basket.
The Redbirds started the game with a 6-0 run, with big man C.J. Johnson, a 6'5" senior, connecting for two, followed by Josh Melvin, a 6'3 junior, who had back-to-back scores. Chester opened with three turnovers in a row, but finally scored on a free throw by Colin Wingerter.
The Redbirds enjoyed an 11-1 run until Ian Reith, a 6'6" Yellow Jacket junior, drained a three-pointer at the buzzer. In the first period West Frankfort shot four free throws and forced eight CHS turnovers.
Keith Kiner III came alive in the second quarter in spite of constant harassment from two, and sometimes three defenders. He started fighting his way into a very heavily-guarded lane and drew two fouls, making 3 of 4 shots.
Kiner then connected for a three-pointer at 4:10 to bring Chester within three points, 13-10. That would be as close as Chester would get the rest of the game.
West Frankfort seemed to have an answer for each Yellow Jacket attempt at a run, as Ethan Culley, C.J. Johnson and Josh Melvin combined for 10 of the Redbirds' 15 points in the second quarter. The Redbirds outscored Chester, 15-8 in the second period to lead by 14 points at the break, 26-12.
In the first half, Chester managed just eight points on field goals; three-pointers from both Reith and Kiner, and a Reith two-pointer. The Jackets hit four points from the line.
In the half, West Frankfort made seven two-pointers, two three-pointers, and went 6-for-9 from the free throw line.
After the halftime break, the Jackets came back onto Rocky Bridges Court with more fire and confidence.
Kiner took the ball to the hoop in the opening 30 seconds. He struck again just a minute later with another powerful move. Chester was within 10 points, 26-16, with 6:12 remaining in the third quarter.
But just when the Jackets would make a move, the Redbirds would retaliate with a corresponding score. This "tit-for-tat" continued throughout the third quarter.
In the third period Kiner carried the Jackets with four determined, hard moves to the basket and a free throw. Jakob Cushman, Ian Reith and Deondre Martin also had field goals.
At the 1:54 mark, Chester's DeOndre Martin got his fifth foul and had to leave the game. Chester trailed 37-24, but just 12 seconds later, C.J. Johnson scored, to widen the Redbird lead to 39-24.
Kiner then drew a foul and made 1 of 2 free throws. Reith scored with 50 seconds remaining in the quarter and Chester trailed by 12 points, 39-27. The Jackets played good defense to close the final 50-seconds but West Frankfort's Ethan Culley got a three-point shot off at the buzzer.
The Redbirds led by 15 points, 42-27, after three quarters of play. For the quarter, West Frankfort scored 16 points to Chester's 15 points.
To open the fourth quarter, Kiner slammed down a dunk and CHS trailed 42-29. On the very next play, Kiner had a monster blocked shot to fire up the huge Chester crowd.
The Yellow Jacket defense held West Frankfort scoreless for the next two minutes, until C.J. Johnson was fouled on a shot attempt and sank two free throws. Just 30 seconds later Kyle Hammers hit a field goal, extending the West Frankfort lead to 46-29 with 5:10 to play.
Chester made a significant 6-0 run on three Keith Kiner free throws and a field goal and a Drake Bollman free throw. C.J. Johnson answered with a pair of free throw of his own and West Frankfort led, 48-35.
At the 1:42 mark Chester's Ian Reith scored what would turn out to be the Yellow Jackets final points of the game on a traditional three point play. It pulled Chester to within 10 points, 48-38.
With 1:30 to play West Frankfort's Kyle Hammers was fouled and made both free throws to widen the Redbird lead to 50-48. At 1:06 left, Chester's Jakob Cushman fouled out. C.J. Johnson made one of his free shots and West Frankfort led, 51-38.
The Redbirds held Chester scoreless the final 1:06 and closed out the contest, making another three free throws to win, 54-38.
Coach Norman tipped his cap to the Redbirds. "Overall, West Frankfort adjusted well defensively throughout the game," he said. "The biggest factor was probably that they hit shots and we couldn't get anything to fall, mainly from the three-point arc."
In the loss the Yellow Jackets were led offensively by Keith Kiner III with 22 points, followed by Ian Reith (10), Jakob Cushman (2), DeOndre Martin (2), Drake Bollman (1) and Colin Wingerter (1).
The Redbirds were led by C.J. Johnson (18) and Josh Melvin (14), followed by Ethan Culley (9), Kyle Hammers (6), Paxton Griffith (3), Rylie House (3), and Cole Levanti (1).
For the night there was a total of 41 free throws attempted by both teams. Chester made 18 for 24 and West Frankfort made 10 for 17.
With the win the Redbirds broke a 12-year drought since winning its last regional championship. Chester, on the other hand, won the regional in 2013 but hadn't won one prior to that for 38 years.
Chester finished the season at 26-6 and undefeated at 12-0 in the Black Diamond Conference. West Frankfort, meanwhile, moves onto the Du Quoin Section, where they will play Nashville at 7 p.m. Feb. 27.
"The reaction in the locker room after the game was a mixture of sadness, pain and a lot of tears," Norman said.
"These young men poured their hearts and souls out this season and didn't want it to end. The hardest part is knowing that we will never as a team be in this position again. It was very tough."
One day, Norman said, it will sink in for the players just how awesome the 2018-19 season was.
"They are upset now, but will understand how much they lifted this community," he added. "It has been amazing to see how this group has been all year. Our program is going to be in better shape because of these young men. The future is bright."
He encouraged Chester residents to not be shy in showing their appreciation to the players if they see them in passing.
"This group of seniors will always have a special place in my heart," Norman said. "Thank you Jakob, Drake, Colin and Keith! Thank you so much for all that you have taught me."