By Jeremy Arzuaga
In a game that saw both teams compete at full strength, a crucial rebound by Decatur Eisenhower guard R.J. Walker at the baseline in the waning seconds became the difference-maker.
That rebound on a missed free throw with eight seconds left, and the subsequent layup, enabled Eisenhower to hold off Mattoon (12-17) in the Class 3A regional boys basketball semifinal Wednesday night at Mattoon High, 53-30.
The Generals (13-19) advance to face Springfield Lanphier (23-9) in the regional final hosted by MHS at 7 on Friday night. Eisenhower has twice lost to Lanphier this season.
In those final seconds Wednesday night at the Mattoon High School gym, electrified fans were on their feet cheering – including Walker’s father, and coach, Rodney Walker. R.J. noticed. His father, a former NBA player, could not contain himself.
R.J. yelled to the sideline somewhat playfully: “Shut up and sit down and watch, Dad.”
Walker then boxed out Mattoon’s Samuel Bradbury after the missed free throw bounced off the rim, leading to a pass to Brylan Phillips for the score at the buzzer to secure the victory over Mattoon.
It was a valiant effort for the banged up Green Wave, who trailed by seven points early in the fourth quarter before Cam’Ron Thomas layed in a basket and then converted the free-throw afterward to tie the score at 43.
Trailing 47-43 a few minutes later, Sam Bradbury and Meade Johnson scored to give Mattoon a 47-46 lead with 2:37 remaining.
But Decatur responded by scoring seven points in a row, including a 3-pointer by Walker that put Eisenhower ahead with 1:36 left.
“He knows when to light it up from three,” Coach Walker said. “He’s been doing it all his life, and knows when he’s feeing it.”
Mattoon coach Ryan Ghere was displeased with the lack of defense on the shot: “I was just frustrated with how open Walker was on his 3.”
Ultimately, Mattoon was forced to foul Eisenhower in the final seconds, hoping to secure a rebound or to score following some made free throws.
“We have lost eight games by less than five points this season,” Ghere said. “In a game of missed opportunities, we kept fighting back and didn’t give up.”
The Green Wave dealt with several setbacks this season, most notably point guard Meade Johnson, who was sidelined for nearly two months from a leg injury. And Thomas, the Wave’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, missed some action after a late-season injury. Thomas scored 21 points Wednesday, most in the first half that kept the close at halftime.
Decatur Eisenhower was able to find scoring opportunities from everyone on the floor, including Karon Shelley, who contributed 14 points.
“I like being a role player for my team,” said the sophomore guard. “I like being there for my guys, getting rebounds, hustling and finding opportunities to score. As long as we played as a team and played together, we knew we could advance to the regional championship.”
But Mattoon battled back again the final minutes. Decatur led by 51-47 with 20 seconds left. Mason Wright banked a 3-pointer to make it 51-50, setting up the final free throws and the rebound by Walker.
“You’ve got to tip your hat off to Mattoon,” said Coach Walker. “They executed when they needed to. They made it tough on us all night as we could never get that lead. They never did rattle under the pressure. That game could’ve went either way tonight.”