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Watseka falls one shot short of making team history

Feb. 23—GILMAN — The Watseka girls' basketball team was looking to make history going into its Class 2A Iroquois West Sectional championship game against Peotone on Thursday night. The Warriors were fresh off winning their third consecutive regional title a week prior and sixth in coach Barry Bauer's 10 years at the helm, But they had never reached the Elite Eight.

After the final buzzer sounded Thursday, the Warriors were one point short, falling one step away from untraveled territory in a 31-30 loss to the Blue Devils.

"They showed me in the summertime what kind of a defensive team they could be," Bauer said of the expectations going into the season. "We really started the year off well, and they just kept improving on that."

Watseka (27-5) was familiar with Peotone, having suffered its first loss of the season to the Blue Devils, 48-43, on Dec. 6 after an 8-0 start. The Warriors used that as motivation, winning their next 14 games, and they entered Thursday's contest looking to avenge their previous loss.

"They were very confident. There was no doubt in their mind," Bauer said of his players' mindset Thursday. "It just became a halfcourt game on both ends. We're used to scoring a lot off of our defense."

It was a defensive battle, with Peotone leading 12-11 at halftime. The Blue Devils held a slight 27-22 advantage going into the fourth quarter, but Watseka slowly chipped away at the deficit the rest of the way. The Warriors trimmed it to a three-point game with just over three minutes to play, and they made it 31-30 with just over one minute to go.

Watseka passed the ball around for about 30 seconds, looking for a crack in the Blue Devil defense. Nothing was opening, so Bauer called a timeout with 33.8 seconds left on the clock.

Coming out of the timeout, the Warriors kept searching for that opening, but it never showed. As the final seconds started to tick away, it became desperation time. Watseka threw one last pass toward the top of the key for a last-second shot, but a Peotone defender stepped in front to steal the ball and seal the sectional title.

"For a girls' game, that's one of the biggest crowds we've played in front of," Bauer said. "Back and forth like that ... we had a lot of confidence that we were going to pull that off. We needed one more bucket, and it just didn't happen."

Briana Denault and Megan Martin led Watseka, Denault with 10 points and seven rebounds and Martin with eight points and 13 rebounds.

There was doubt late in the season if Watseka would be able to continue its success into the postseason. After starting the season 22-1, the Warriors lost three of four games in a 10-day stretch from late January into early February.

Watseka put those doubts to bed with its run to yet another regional championship and coming one shot away from their first Elite Eight appearance in school history.

"We went above and beyond expectations going into the year, but I still think we had some gas left in the tank," Bauer said. "Twenty-seven wins and a Sweet 16 was something I don't think a lot of people thought this team could do. We had a good senior group that kept improving the whole year, and I'm pretty proud of their accomplishments."