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Purple Riders ride into the Sweet 16

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EFFINGHAM — Tanner Thomas has had the spotlight on him since his freshman year at Arcola.

Committing to play baseball at Louisville before he ever suited up for a high school baseball game will do that.

But it was another sport on Tuesday night where Thomas thrived.

The bigger the stage, the better Thomas seems to play. The junior guard on one of the state's last remaining Class 1A teams still playing had a second half to remember, lifting the Purple Riders to a 56-44 win against Webber in a sectional semifinal game at the Enlow Center.

"I've never had a Division I athlete like him," Arcola coach Greg Gisinger said. "We don't get many here, and we don't want to waste it. Aside from that, he is the most humble, nicest kid, too. The type of kid you want your daughter to marry. That'll take him farther than baseketball, baseball or anything else he does in life."

Thomas scored 15 of his team-high 18 points after halftime, sparking Arcola (27-6) to its latest win and a spot in the sectional championship game at 6 p.m. on Friday against either Tuscola (28-5) or Centralia Christ Our Rock Lutheran (18-15). Those two teams play at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the other sectional semifinal game.

"We ran some stuff for him in the second half to get him going, and he converted," Gisinger said. "He really got it going there, too."

Indeed he did. Thomas scored 13 points just in the third quarter, but Webber (30-4) still kept it close, only trailing 39-36 going into the fourth quarter. But Thomas' teammates also picked up the slack in the final eight minutes, with senior forward Jackson Miller knocking down a clutch three-pointer and both of his free throws. Miller finished with 14 points.

Gerardo Alanis gave Arcola three players in double figures as the senior guard contributed 11 points.

That was more than enough to help the Purple Riders to advance to just the third Sweet 16 in program history. Arcola will try to win its first sectional title since 1964 on Friday night — a far cry from where Arcola was in the first month of the season.

The Purple Riders were just 6-4 after a 65-21 home loss to Tuscola on Dec. 19. But since the lopsided loss to their main rival? Arcola has rattled off a 21-2 stretch that mirrors one of the best runs in program history.

"The first 10 games of the season, we were so worried about being selfish that we were afraid to make a mistake and not make a play," Gisinger said. "We lost our grit a little bit."

It's back now. And primed for a large turnout on Friday night at the Enlow Center. Especially if Tuscola can beat Centralia Christ Our Rock Lutheran on Wednesday night to set up another version of the Cola Wars, with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.

All that is standing between Arcola playing next Monday night at Groniger Arena on the Eastern Illinois University campus in Charleston in a super-sectional game is one more win.

"I'm just so happy," Gisinger said. "We're blessed to coach great kids in a great community. We have a team that plays for a bigger purpose, and that's playing for one another."

Gisinger didn't bite either when asked how badly he and his players would want another shot at Tuscola, the reigning third-place team in 1A.

"I just can't wait to play Friday night," he said. "It would be an awesome setting if it were Tuscola, but whoever is there, we'll be happy to play them. It's the Sweet 16. Every team is good at this stage."