Playing on what is arguably the biggest stage of the season, Harrisburg stepped out from behind the curtain, played it’s role perfectly and in true No. 1 fashion, dropped the microphone and exited stage left.
Harrisburg, the state’s No. 1 team in Class 2A, played up to its billing in beating St. Joseph-Ogden 53-43 Friday night in the semifinals of the IHSA State Basketball Tournament at Carver Arena in Peoria.
But like any production, the final didn’t come without some drama.
The Bulldogs led by just one-point, 36-35 after the end of three quarters of play and less than 30 seconds into the fourth, Harrisburg trailed 37-36.
St. Joseph-Ogden’s Brent Schluter drilled a three-pointer to give the Spartans their biggest lead of the game at two, taking a 40-38 advantage with 6:51 to play.
And then here came Harrisburg.
Dakota Upchurch took care of a Tyler Smithpeters assist to tie the game at 40 and Smithpeters followed that up scoring underneath to give Harrisburg a 42-40 lead.
While one might expect a senior like Smithpeters, maybe even Upchurch of even Capel Henshaw or Ryne Roper to come through in the clutch, it was a sophomore that stole the show.
After SJO tied the game at 42, Bahari Amaya breaks the tie with a deep 3-pointer for a 45-42 lead. The 6-foot-4 forward followed that up with a rebound on the defensive end and then found a wide open Henshaw under the basket to give Harrisburg a 47-42 lead.
Amaya tied Henshaw for the team leader in points with 13, sending the Bulldogs to their first ever state championship game.
Eli Taborn-Scott netted nine for Harrisburg, who improved to 32-1, while Upchurch, Smithpeters and Snjolfur Bjornsson all finished with five and Roper tacked on three for the Bulldogs.
Harrisburg head coach Randy Smithpeters said his Bulldog bunch is chalk full of guys that can contribute in a number of ways. Amaya coming off the bench is just one example of what makes this club click so well.
“This is the kind of team we have and I think that’s one of our strengths, we have a lot of guys that can contribute in a lot of ways. It’s one of the things I said in the locker room before I walked out was I can point to each person in there and point out something that each one of them did that was very important in helping us win this game.
“Here’s a sophomore and actually a sophomore that’s not going to be 16 until this summer, so he should be a freshmen and we’ll check with IHSA to check and see if we can get a red shirt year in there someplace,” Smithpeters joked. “He hit some big shots. He hit a big shot early, he hit a big shot late. I’m happy for him as a sophomore to step up in this kind of pressure and be able to make those plays.”
Page 2 of 2 - For Amaya, it was simply of case of just doing what he could to help his ball club.
“It’s a great feeling,” the sophomore said of hitting one of the game’s biggest shots. “I didn’t really think we went to the boards very well, so I tried to help out there and put some points on the board so we could win.“
Up next is Seton Academy, out of South Holland in tonight’s (Saturday’s) championship at 8:15 p.m.
It was a fast start for the Bulldogs who quickly went up 10-0 on three straight 3-pointers from Capel Henshaw.
A Bahari Amaya 3-pointer gave the Bulldogs their biggest lead of the game at 15-2, before Harrisburg closed out the first quarter up 17-7.
The equalizer in the first half seemed to be the 3-pointer, because St. Joseph-Ogden answered right back with three treys of their own to cut Harrisburg’s lead to 27-30 with 1:59 to play. The Spartans got to within six at 23-17, but Snjolfur Bjornsson helped put Harrisburg back up by 10 points when he scored on a putback with 3:00 to play in the first half.
The Bulldogs were able to handle St. Joseph-Ogden’s rally and went into the locker room leading 29-20.
Harrisburg came apart at the seams so to speak in the third quarter as they were outscored 15-7 and led by just one, 36-35 at the end.
St. Joseph-Ogden put together a run in the third period where they forced Harrisburg into costly turnovers and kept the Bulldogs off the glass. More importantly, the Spartans sent the Bulldogs’ leading scorer Tyler Smithpeters to the bench with his third foul with 4:16 to play and he didn’t return until the fourth.
The Bulldogs did get a boost from Ryne Roper as he got the hoop and harm with 51.2 to play in the third, giving Harrisburg a 36-30 lead.
Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @spydieshooter.