Winning is not easy in the postseason and sometimes it's not pretty either.
Tuesday night's game was neither easy nor pretty for Oblong High School's boys' basketball team, but the Panthers still managed to notch another one in the win column with their 54-44 victory over Neoga in the semifinals of the IHSA Class 1A Dieterich Regional.
"We talked before the game about what we had to do to achieve our goals and one of those things was find a way to win," OHS head coach Brent Harper said. "Sometimes you've got to gut it out, keep searching and find a way to close it out and that's what we did."
The top-seeded Panthers got a stern test from fifth-seeded Neoga, who upset Hutsonville-Palestine Monday to advance to the semifinals, but were able to find their groove in the second half to pull away for the win.
Oblong started quickly, as Jared Mayhew scored the first basket of the game, then Anthony Johnson followed with two free throws for a 4-0 lead with 6:34 to play. After a Neoga basket, Koert Mehler scored on a putback and Johnson converted a steal into a layup for an 8-2 OHS advantage with remaining.
Neoga answered with a 9-2 run to take an 11-10 lead with 1:15 left, but Johnson responded with a drive and layup to put the Panthers back in front, 12-11, with 45 seconds to go. However, Neoga's Jake Baker knocked down his second three-pointer of the period with 22 seconds left and the Indians held a 14-12 edge at the end of the first period.
Oblong evened the score 10 seconds into the second quarter when Gerald Richardson took a lead pass from Johnson after a steal by Mehler and scored inside to make the score 14-14, then the teams traded hoops over the next two minutes, with Neoga holding a 20-18 lead with 5:20 to play. Oblong followed with a 6-0 run, starting with Johnson's pull-up three-pointer from the left wing to put the Panthers up 21-20 with 4:25 to go. Johnson added two free throws with 3:52 left and Mehler made one free throw with 3:28 remaining to push the OHS lead to 24-20. Neither team would score again until the final seconds of the half, when Baker threw in a 25-footer at the buzzer to pull Neoga to within 24-23 at halftime.
"I thought we played a real good first half, we just didn't finish shots," Harper said. "For some reason, we couldn't finish around the basket tonight." Two free throws by Baker gave Neoga a 25-24 lead 47 seconds into the third quarter, while Collin Meese made two free throws at the 5:52 mark to put Oblong back on top to stay, 26-25. Those foul shots started a 9-2 run for the Panthers that helped them seize control of the game. Johnson knocked down a jumper from the free throw line with 4:55 to go and added two free throws with 4:28 left to push the OHS lead to 30-25, then after a Neoga basket, Richardson made a free throw and Johnson scored inside to make the score 33-27 with 2:30 remaining. Oblong then closed the period with a 6-0 run, including Johnson's coast-to-coast drive and layup with two seconds left, to give the Panthers a 39-29 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
Neoga would not get any closer than seven points in the final period, but the Panthers never completely closed the door. Wyatt Krikie converted a three-point play early in the period for the Indians, but Mehler responded with an old-fashioned three-point play of his own and Chase Mendenhall added a layup to give Oblong its biggest lead of the game, 44-32, with 5:15 remaining. A 6-2 spurt by Neoga trimmed the OHS lead to eight, but a free throw by Johnson and another basket by Mendenhall gave the Panthers a 49-38 lead with 2:30 left. Two quick baskets by Neoga's Riley Walk closed the gap to 49-42 with 1:47 left and the Indians had a chance to get closer after Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-bonus at the free throw line. But, Neoga would miss two shots from close range on the ensuing possession, however Johnson missed another front end of a one-and-bonus opportunity with 1:01 to play. This time, Richardson was able to force a jump ball, which gave the Panthers possession and he would knock down one free throw at the line with 55.4 seconds left to extend the lead to 50-42. Johnson would add a free throw after a Neoga turnover to make the score 51-42 with 49.6 seconds left. A basket by Krikie pulled Neoga to within 51-44 with 40 seconds left, then Mehler made a free throw with 32.5 seconds left to push the lead to 52-44. Baker would miss a three-pointer on the ensuing possession, with Kurt Knollenberg snagging the rebound. Richardson would get free for a layup in the final seconds to finish the scoring and seal the win for the Panthers.
"I told the boys at halftime I was happy with the way they were playing, but needed to finish better at the basket and keep them from making a run at us in the third quarter," Harper said. "We came out with a lot of energy and were able to pull away."
Making shots was a struggle for both teams throughout the game, but the Panthers were able to knock down a few more and took advantage at the free throw line.
Oblong was just 18-47 from the floor (38 percent), which included a 17-39 effort from two-point range (44 percent) and a 1-8 performance from three-point range (13 percent), while Neoga only made 16-52 field goal attempts (31 percent), including 11-34 from inside the arc (32 percent) and 5-18 from long distance (28 percent), which is where the Indians did their damage in Monday's win.
"I was happy with our defense for the most part," Harper said. "We did a good job closing out on their shooters and were aggressive on the perimeter. We also did a good job trying to disrupt them with our press."
Oblong also went 17-25 at the free throw line (68 percent), while Neoga was 7-10 at the charity stripe (70 percent).
"We still need to put together a complete game," Harper said. "Our defense was solid, but the offense struggled. But, it says something about these boys when you can win games when you are not playing your best. That's what good teams do."
Johnson paced OHS with 25 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals, while Mehler posted nine points, five rebounds, two steals and one assist. Richardson totaled six points, eight rebounds, two steals, two blocked shots and one assist, Meese netted six points, four rebounds and two steals, Mendenhall contributed four points and one rebound, Mayhew collected two points, 11 rebounds, eight blocked shots and one assist and Knollenberg added two points and one rebound.
Krikie led Neoga with 15 points, five assists, three steals and two rebounds, while Baker posted 14 points, 10 rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot.
Oblong (19-11) will play the winner of tonight's semifinal between second-seeded Dieterich and sixth-seeded Windsor in the championship game of the Class 1A Dieterich Regional Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Dieterich defeated Martinsville 63-43, while Windsor upset third-seeded Stewardson-Strasburg 63-58 in quarterfinal games Tuesday.
"Anything can happen this time of year, so we will prepare like we always do no matter who we play," Harper said. "We will come out Friday and see if we can get our second regional championship in a row."