PEORIA -- For three quarters, the United Township girls basketball team was ready to play the role of spoiler.|
Then, everything came crashing down.The emotional and physical win over Rock Island on Tuesday; the loss of senior star Jen VanWatermeulen; playing one of the top teams in the state on their home court; a student section that showed up in the nick of time.
All those things weighed too heavily on the Panthers and their season came to an end, losing to Peoria Richwoods in the Class 4A regional championship, 57-42.
Those things weren't excuses for UT either, just a lot to overcome.
"We looked slow to the ball, and it just seemed like we were moving in mud," UT coach Justin Shiltz said. "Losing Jen was huge but that's no excuse.
"It was a depressing game. You know you're going to lose eventually, but you'd like to play your best and if that's not good enough, OK. But tonight I'm not sure we did that. We played them toe-to-toe but then then broke at the end."
Tayler Dobrinske's 3-ball at the beginning of the fourth quarter brought the Panthers back to within five points and polished off a 7-2 run after UT got down by 10.
Then, the Knights (24-5) just pushed forward, finishing with a 16-6 run as UT (19-13) scored just a pair of baskets in the final six minutes.
"It was a good game until we got tired and kind of gave up," Jamie VanWatermeulen said. "You could tell who wanted it more and who didn't."
With the game at just five points, over 100 Richwoods students stormed the gym, returning from the Knights boys game less than a mile away. Their immediate noise made an impact, and seemed to give the Richwoods girls a boost.
"They were just quicker and more physical and won a lot of the 50-50 balls," said Shiltz whose team was out rebounded 34-24. "They made plays. We got lost in our zone and lost our shooters and you can't do that against good teams."
For the most part, the Panther held in check Richwoods star Olivia Elger, as the super soph only scored 15 points. Joining her with game-high scoring honors was UT's Dobrinske, the sophomore shooting star. Katie Daggett scored eight points and had 10 rebounds and five blocks to finish her great season. VanWatermeulen played the point, changing her game, but she still managed to score five points and pull down five rebounds.
Richwoods, which has been ranked in the top 10 all season, had trouble getting rid of the Panthers.
"They just kept hanging around and (Dobrinske) made some big shots," first-year Richwoods coach Heather Cassidy said. "We saw them against Rock Island and we didn't want to turn it into a track meet with them."
The Knights were happy to play against UT's zone, taking 40-60 seconds every possession waiting for good shots.
For UT, losing all of its starters to graduation last season, this year could have easily been written off. However, Shiltz' girls were determined to change the conversation and did just that before ending one game short of a regional title and a 20-win season.
"These seniors were a great transition group," Shiltz said of Daggett, both VanWatermeulens and Amy Heiland. "All the adjectives you can think off in a positive way that was this group. It's probably the most fun team I have coached in 14 years and that's not just coach speak."