MOUNT PLEASANT — Staying undefeated hasn’t always come easy for the WACO High School boys basketball team.
Yet, 20 times teams have given the Warriors their best shot. Twenty times WACO has answered the bell.
Pekin was the latest team to try to knock off the second-ranked (Class 1A) Warriors, but WACO got a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Gabe Reichenbach at the end of the half and used that momentum for a 59-50 win in the SEI Superconference Shootout championship game Friday at Ruble Arena.
“Each game with this group is special, because they know the amount of work and energy it takes to beat teams like this,” WACO coach Paul Kissell said. “Pekin is a really good team. Sometimes in the South Division, you don’t see that physicality, but our kids are just stubborn enough to keep going inside.”
WACO (20-0) beat three teams — New London, Notre Dame and Pekin — this week that will all be in the same Class 1A district. The Panthers, however, have battled the Warriors tough the last two times, with last year’s matchup ending on a Nik Coble buzzer-beater in district play.
“There was a little extra juice tonight because of that,” Pekin coach John Swanson said. “I don’t know if it’s the opponent, but I think our guys are ready to play in big games. We were having fun tonight.”
Indeed, Pekin (14-4) beat WACO to rebounds and loose balls in the first half, and the Panthers led by eight midway through the second quarter. However, WACO closed quickly, capped off by Reichenbach’s three on a set play from the top of the key that gave the Warriors a 27-25 lead at the break.
The Panthers continued to stay stride-for-stride with the Warriors in the second half, but a technical foul after Nick Tschudy buried a 3-pointer seemed to change the momentum. After taking a 36-34 lead, Pekin didn’t make a basket for almost 10 minutes, with all their points at the free-throw line as WACO built a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“The three at the end of the half really set them up well for the second half, and you just do the best you can to reset after T,” Swanson said. “That deflated us a little bit, and we also made some mental mistakes. But credit WACO. They hit some big shots.”
WACO’s defense clamped down in the second half, and made good looks harder to come by. It started with rebounding and winning the loose balls and not allowing multiple shots on possessions.
“We really focused on our defense in the second half, because we knew Pekin was a really good offensive team,” said WACO’s Pietro Vannini, who scored 15 points as one of four Warriors in double figures. “This group has a lot of chemistry, but we’ve just focused on every game as it comes.”
“We settled for a lot of threes in the first half and they didn’t fall for us,” Kissell said. “Pekin took a lot of them in the first half and they couldn’t miss. Pekin does a great job of clogging the lane. They make you earn everything.”
Tschudy scored 17 points to lead the Panthers, while Brayden Sobaski added 16 and Brady Millikin 11. Reichenbach scored a game-high 19 points for WACO.
“WACO is a tough team to guard. You have to help on Nick, but Reichenbach stepped up with a big game,” Swanson said. “But I was really happy with how we came out. We just got caught a little tired in the second half.”
The teams could meet again if each gets to the district final, but Kissell realizes the journey to get there won’t be easy.
“You can’t take a night off,” he said. “We beat the top three teams in our district, and have to beat at least two of them again. That’s tough, but we just focus on each game and embrace them.”
Pekin visits Fairfield Monday, then closes the regular season Tuesday against Wapello.