LaSALLE – Emotions flowed for the Rock Falls Rockets on Monday night. So did their momentum down the stretch.
The Rockets successfully rallied back for a quarterfinal victory in the Class 3A LaSalle-Peru Regional, erasing a double-digit lead before holding off the host Cavaliers 65-59.
A large contingent of the Rocket community came together and made the trip down to the game after the death of a fellow student, Rock Falls freshman basketball player Matt Anderson, over the weekend.
That togetherness reflected the style of play on the court for the Rockets, who were full of emotion and played as a unit all night. It also created an atmosphere in which it felt like a home game for Rock Falls, thanks to an overflowing student section.
The game started very slowly for both teams, as they combined to score just 14 points in the first quarter. A pair of 3s from the Rockets helped them to gain an 8-6 lead, and also got their crowd involved early on.
“I was just trying to come out and do what my role is on the team,” explained Rock Falls freshman Logan Pillars, who hit a pair of 3s in the first half. “They brought me up to shoot the ball and play hard defense. I was just trying to do my job, and whatever happened, happened.”
But the lead didn’t last long. The Cavaliers rattled off a 10-0 run to begin the second quarter, with eight points coming from junior Eric Malaicki. His team maintained control of the quarter, taking a 29-18 lead until the final minute before halftime.
“I don’t think we were that bad,” Rockets coach Brad Bickett said. “We just went into a little funk in the second period, and they jumped out on us. But we regained our composure, and that kind of prevented them from making it a double-digit lead.”
Rocket senior Austin Donoho followed up a free throw with a layup with 52 seconds before the break. The ensuing LaSalle-Peru possession consisted of running the clock down to get the final shot, and Rock Falls was not content with this.
Strong ball pressure eventually led to senior Cory McCallister picking off a pass in the corner with five ticks left on the clock. He alertly launched it upcourt to Donoho, who had leaked into the frontcourt, and Donoho finished a layup with contact as the buzzer sounded.
Despite missing the free throw, the play still provided a four-point swing and, more importantly, got the momentum back on Rock Falls’ side.
“I thought that steal and basket at the end of the half gave us the momentum going into the half,” Bickett said.
A pair of baskets within 30 seconds from junior Jacob Mammosser early in the second half cut the deficit to 37-29, and started a snowball effect for his team.
“We had to get out there and get after it,” Mammosser said. “When you’re down at half, you have to fight back. We limited our turnovers and played as hard as we can.”
Unfortunately for Mammosser, he picked up his fourth foul a mere 2 minutes later, at the 3-minute mark of the third, and headed to the bench.
The Rockets were still down by 7 points, but continued to fight, and collectively came back as one. Each of the five players on the floor for Rock Falls did his part to aid the comeback, whether it was grabbing a rebound, making a steal, or dishing an assist.
“We’ve had foul trouble throughout the season,” Bickett said, “and all the different lineups we used, we needed those guys. Everyone showed that they are an integral part of the team, and that everyone has to play their role.”
With the score tied at 53 with 3 minutes left in the game, the Cavaliers had possession and looked poised to retake the lead. Instead, the quick Donoho disrupted a LaSalle-Peru drive to the hoop, tying up a jump ball that favored the Rockets.
Mammosser checked back into the game and knocked down a go-ahead 23-footer to give his team a 56-53 lead. It electrified the Rock Falls fans, and that emotion poured out onto the court and took over.
The Rockets led from that point on, and fought off every Cavalier attack. LaSalle-Peru cut the lead to 59-58 with 30 seconds left, but clutch free-throw shooting sealed the deal for Rock Falls. As a team, the Rockets went 9-for-10 from the line in the final 2 minutes of the game.
“The way I played is the way everyone played – hard,” Mammosser said. “I just had more opportunities to grab 50-50 balls and sink some free throws, that’s all.”
“We talked about once we got into the postseason, it’s a grind,” Bickett said. “We just had to grind it out. It was a great effort.”
As the game wound down, tears flowed from many of the Rock Falls fans. The students all collected at center court. A powerful moment ensued, as they hoisted a No. 10 Rocket jersey into the air to honor their fallen classmate, who Illinois state police say was accidentally shot at a state trooper’s home at 11:40 a.m. Saturday.
“It’s huge,” said an emotional Pillars. “Matt was a good friend, and it was huge for us. It’s lifted a load off our backs. We have all been sad for 2 days, and this just helps lift a load off our backs.”
Class 3A LaSalle-Peru Regional
Rock Falls 65, LaSalle-Peru 59
Star of the game: Austin Donoho, RF, 17 points, 7 rebounds
Key performers: Connor Cain, RF, 13 points, 7 rebounds; Jacob Mammosser, RF. 13 points, 2 steals; Eric Milaicki, LP, 16 points, 3 3s; Noah Lamboley, LP, 15 points, 2 steals, 1 block
Up next: 3A LaSalle-Peru Regional semifinal, Rock Falls vs. Mendota, 6 p.m. today