PEKIN — If it had to happen, at least only the outright Southeast Iowa Superconference title was lost on Thursday night.
For the eighth-ranked (2A) Pekin boys basketball team, there is still plenty to play for after a 71-54 loss to New London in a district championship rematch between the Panthers and Tigers.
The SEISC south division champions were paced by Blaise Porter, who scored a game-high 27 points for the 1A state tournament hopefuls. Camden Kasel and Kade Benjamin each added 17 points as New London fought back off the ropes after being caught with opening haymakers from the Panthers in the form of three straight made field goals by Brady Millikin, opening a quick 10-0 lead for Pekin.
"This had a tournament feel to it with the crowd and the juice. It was good to get that big-game sensation before the postseason begins," Pekin head boys basketball coach John Swanson said. "It all comes down to confidence. We came out with a lot of confidence early, but New London has always been a tough one for us."
The Tigers responded behind Porter, who scored twice and found Devin Swanson to keep New London in the game. Despite shooting 9-12 from the field in the first quarter, Pekin's lead was only 22-14 after one as Porter scored six points for the Tigers in the opening eight minutes.
"That's a pretty good team," Millikin said of New London. "They might go to state. They're that good. I had a little run at the beginning, but we didn't have the shooting night that some of us wanted as the game went along. That happens sometimes. You just have off nights."
Pekin made just four of 14 shots in the second quarter as the Tigers moved in front, scoring the first 10 points of period. Braden Sobaski briefly tied the game with a jumper before Porter drew a shooting foul on a three-point attempt, hitting two free throws to put New London ahead for good.
The Panthers struggled at the free throw line, missing seven of 11 shots from the charity stripe in the first half helping aid New London's comeback. Swanson scored inside on a feed from Porter before sinking a 3-pointer of his own, giving New London a sudden 35-25 lead late in the first half.
"We had some situations early with some timeouts where you could see our guys starting to hang their heads a little bit," Swanson said. "I know from experience that, if you put them back in, it's going to be tough to make that big shot or make that defensive stop when you're worried about the last one. You have to forget about it quickly and move on to the next play."
Pekin scored all 13 points in the third quarter from inside the 3-point arc, including consecutive baskets by Cael Lyle and five late points from Luke Long that kept New London (16-4) from pulling away, bringing the Panthers within 51-46 heading into the fourth. Porter then opened the final quarter scoring five straight points, sinking a 3-pointer on the opening possession before collecting a steal and driving in for an uncontested lay-up.
Pekin got as close as 60-51 after Chandler Stull buried a 3-pointer with three minutes left. It would be just one of five makes in 24 attempts from beyond the arc for the Panthers, who could not recapture the same fire from the outside that establish an early lead in Pekin's third straight appearance in the SEISC Shootout's battle of division champions.
"There's some disappointment to lose this game for the third straight year. It stung, but we talked about moving on and walking out of here being able to go back to practice tomorrow," Swanson said. "We've got more work to do. This wasn't our Super Bowl."
Millikin led No. 8 (2A) Pekin (16-2) with 16 points and a pair of steals. Lyle added 12 points and matched Sobaski, who had 11 points, with eight rebounds in the loss.