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Rockets stay unbeaten with marquee win: 'This was a huge game'

Jan. 10—Close

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Unity's Andrew Thomas (3) and Unity's Henry Thomas (5) after the game in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Dalton O'Neill (11) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's students in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Unity's Coleton Langendorf (30) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) keep out Unity's Henry Thomas (5) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) and Unity's Tre Hoggard (45) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's head coach Matt Franks. in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) and Unity's Coleton Langendorf (30) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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The gym was pretty full in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Josiah Hortin (2) guards Unity's Aiden Porter (15) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Dane Eisenmenger (33) and Unity's Tre Hoggard (45) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Henry Thomas (5) and Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Tuscola's Josiah Hortin (2) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's bench watches as Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) and Unity's Eric Miebech (4) play in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Unity's Henry Thomas (5) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Jay Saunders (12) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) and Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Brayden Henry (23) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Andrew Thomas (3) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Jay Saunders (12) and Tuscola's Sawyer Woodard (25) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's head coach Justin Bozarth in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Sawyer Woodard (25) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Unity's Dane Eisenmenger (33) reacts to taking the lead in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Parker James (12) and Unity's Jay Saunders (12) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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PHOTO GALLERY: Boys' basketball: Unity vs. Tuscola

Top-ranked Unity held off rival Tuscola in a thrilling boys' basketball game in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

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Unity's Andrew Thomas (3) and Unity's Henry Thomas (5) after the game in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Dalton O'Neill (11) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's students in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Unity's Coleton Langendorf (30) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) keep out Unity's Henry Thomas (5) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) and Unity's Tre Hoggard (45) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's head coach Matt Franks. in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) and Unity's Coleton Langendorf (30) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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The gym was pretty full in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Josiah Hortin (2) guards Unity's Aiden Porter (15) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Dane Eisenmenger (33) and Unity's Tre Hoggard (45) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Henry Thomas (5) and Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Tuscola's Josiah Hortin (2) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's bench watches as Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) and Unity's Eric Miebech (4) play in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) and Unity's Henry Thomas (5) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Jay Saunders (12) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) and Tuscola's Jordan Quinn (23) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Brayden Henry (23) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Andrew Thomas (3) and Tuscola's Parker James (12) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Jay Saunders (12) and Tuscola's Sawyer Woodard (25) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's head coach Justin Bozarth in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Sawyer Woodard (25) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Unity's Dane Eisenmenger (33) reacts to taking the lead in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Parker James (12) and Unity's Jay Saunders (12) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

* Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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Tuscola's Kam Sweetnam (3) in a prep boys basketball game at Unity in Tolono on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

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TOLONO — Tuscola, the top-ranked boys' basketball team in Class 1A, was coming off its first loss of the season in a close game at Shelbyville.

Unity, the No. 2 team in Class 2A, was rolling through everybody in its way for an undefeated start to the year.

The Rocket Center was going to be packed regardless, but if you made a last-minute decision to attend Tuesday night's matchup between the two area heavyweights, you would have missed a good chunk of the first quarter finding a parking spot. On the schedule, it was just another regular-season game, but everyone knew it was anything but.

"This was a huge game and a huge rivalry for us," Unity senior forward Dalton O'Neill said. "It was really fun, and the atmosphere was great. This is always a game we look forward to and have circled on our calendar."

After 32 minutes of an as-advertised nail-biting battle, the Rockets came out on top 74-70.

It didn't look like the final score would be as close as it was as the second quarter got started. On the first possession, senior guard Andrew Thomas hit a three-pointer to send the sold-out Rocket Center into a frenzy and give Unity (16-0) a 17-9 lead. The Warriors (15-2) started clawing their way back and made it a two-point game midway through the quarter, but that's when O'Neill got hot.

The Unity sharpshooter made a three-pointer to put the Rockets back up by five. The next possession, he tested his limits and made an even longer three to up the lead to eight. Next time down the court, he shot the ball as soon as he touched it — from much deeper than the last two and with a hand in his face — and hit nothing but net to increase Unity's lead to 11.

O'Neill finished the game with a team-high 29 points and seven made threes. He said, "It's really fun when you can't miss," and he left Unity and Tuscola fans, players and coaches alike drop their jaws watching his performance.

"He's a microwave. When he heats up, he heats up," Unity coach Matt Franks said of O'Neill. "He has those moments in practice, and guys just start shaking their heads because he's in a different world."

Tuscola coach Justin Bozarth called a timeout just before halftime to try to cool O'Neill down and get his players back on track. The Warriors settled back into their game and managed to go into the locker room only down 33-28.

"Regardless of what people say, a rivalry game means something more," Bozarth said. "It's more or less coach speak when you say, 'It's just another game.' When you play a rivalry game, it means something for you to win."

That's exactly what Tuscola had in mind, and it took a 42-40 lead midway through the third quarter after back-to-back threes from seniors Josiah Hortin and Jordan Quinn. The teams traded baskets the rest of the quarter and went into the fourth tied at 51.

"That's what we try to stress to our team," Franks said of every little thing meaning that much more in games like this. "Everybody remembers the last three possessions of the game, but how do we handle that middle stretch? Possessions are gold, especially in a physical game with Tuscola."

Helping O'Neill in Unity's winning effort were Henry Thomas with 12 points and Andrew Thomas and Dane Eisenmenger with eight apiece. Kam Sweetnam led Tuscola with 19 points, followed by Sawyer Woodard with 16 points, Hortin with 13 points and Quinn and Parker James with 11 points each.

O'Neill hit his final three-pointer of the night a couple minutes into the fourth quarter, followed by another three from Eisenmenger and a tough layup from senior Eric Miebach. All of a sudden, Unity was up by 10 with just 3:20 left.

Just like O'Neill heated up in the second quarter, the Warriors caught fire down the final stretch. James knocked down a three with just one minute remaining to make it a four-point game. Sweetnam made one 20 seconds later to make it a three-point game. Sweetnam cut the deficit to two points after nailing a shot from the halfcourt logo with just 10 seconds to go.

"That was crazy," O'Neill said. "We were up 10 points with two minutes left, and they got it to three. That was a little scary, but Henry knocked down those two free throws. We believed in him, and we knew he could do it."

Thomas' free throws in the last seconds came after missing a pair of free throws just a few moments prior. This time, he made both to give the Rockets a 74-70 lead and secure their 16th straight victory.