TOLONO — From the front doors all the way out to County Road 800, fans turned every available square inch of pavement on Unity High School’s property into overflow parking.
You could hear the band getting the crowd excited inside as soon as you stepped out of your car.
Both student sections — the Rockets’ U Crew in all white and the Spartans’ Maroon Platoon resembling an American flag — nearly reached the back wall of the Rocket Center.
That’s Unity vs. St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball for you, a storied rivalry that features two of the best teams in the state this season. It was only right that Friday night’s matchup between the Class 2A powerhouses in a raucous environment turned into the most exciting game they’d experience all year.
“That was the game of the year,” SJ-O coach Kiel Duval said.
Spartan senior leader Logan Smith took it one word further.
“That was definitely the game of the year,” Smith emphasized.
And Unity coach Matt Franks couldn’t disagree.
“What a great game. Just a great basketball game,” Franks added. “That was fun.”
An early comeback, a late comeback, a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer and overtime. All that led to a 73-72 road win for the Spartans that clinched them a share of the Illini Prairie Conference title.
“We went through so many different experiences (Friday night) that you can’t simulate in practice,” Duval said, “and we were able to find a way to come out on top.”
The first of those experiences came late in the first quarter, when Unity senior Andrew Thomas nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key to put the home team up 13-6 and force SJ-O to call a timeout.
But the Spartans (23-6, 8-0 Illini Prairie) expected that. They knew the Rockets (23-3, 5-2 Illini Prairie) would come out strong in front of their packed home crowd.
“You’re going to have to take their punches, and you’ve got to be ready to punch back,” Duval said he told his players before the game. “When we called that first timeout, our guys had a look like they weren’t worried, and that’s how they’ve been all year. They’re fighters. We’ve got winners on our team, and they had that refuse-to-lose mentality (Friday night).”
From there, the Spartans went to work. They chipped away at the deficit in the second quarter on the back of Smith, who had 17 points at halftime and led all scorers with 29 by the end of the game. Smith ended the first half with a blowby basket at the rim right before the buzzer to give SJ-O a 36-26 lead.
“I give my teammates a lot of credit,” Smith said. “They’re good shooters, and (Unity) had to help off, which gave me a clear lane to go finish at the rim.”
Sitting courtside, Unity Athletic Director and football coach Scott Hamilton watched Smith tear the Rockets’ defense apart and said, “I know the feeling,” thinking back to when Smith, The News-Gazette’s 2023 Football Player of the Year, did the same thing Sept. 1 at Hicks Field in a 38-35 win over the Rockets.
“He’s one of the toughest competitors we’ve ever had. No doubt about it,” Duval said of Smith. “When he comes over here, it means a little extra to him. It’s a rivalry game, and he absolutely hates losing to Unity.”
The Spartans carried a 51-41 lead into the fourth quarter, but that’s when Henry Thomas took over. The Rockets gave their senior leader the ball every possession down the stretch, and he scored 18 of his team-high 27 points in the fourth quarter.
“I love the second half,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I feel like a lot of driving lanes open, I see a lot more and I just play at my pace. I feel like I go slow, and somehow, it works.”
Thomas made it a two-point game with just a minute left to play. That’s where the deficit stayed until SJ-O senior Tanner Jacob made a free throw to put the Spartans up 67-64 with 10 seconds to go.
The Spartans weren’t going to let Thomas beat them for the final shot. They swarmed him as the final seconds ticked away, leaving Dane Eisenmenger open on the right wing. Eisenmenger caught the pass and let a three-pointer fly. Duval said it gave him flashbacks of El Paso-Gridley beating the Sparatns at the buzzer Dec. 30 in the State Farm Holiday Classic championship.
“We executed a set and got a look,” Franks said. “That’s all you can ask for in those situations, and he got it to go in.”
It was dead silent as the ball hung in the air, but as it touched nothing but net to send the game into overtime tied at 67, the Rocket Center erupted.
“My ears were ringing because it was so loud,” Thomas said. “It was such a moment where I was like, ‘We’re finally here.’”
The overtime period came down to free throws, which the Rockets struggled with all night. With SJ-O leading 73-71, Unity senior Eric Miebach intentionally missed a free throw with 2.1 seconds on the clock. Jay Saunders grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled on the ensuing shot.
Saunders sunk the first free throw to make it a one-point game but left the second just short, and the Spartans tipped the ball away to let the last fractions of a second expire to put a close on an epic game and epic night.
“When rivals play, that’s what you get,” Franks said. “It turned into a slugfest, and that’s what you want. You had two teams playing as hard as they could.”
Following Smith in the scoring column for SJ-O were Luke Landrus with 13 points and Coy Taylor with 12. Andrew Thomas and Dalton O’Neill scored 13 and 12 points, respectively, for Unity to complement Henry Thomas.
Duval said those last 30 seconds felt like a full five minutes of game time, and the atmosphere — where the crowd gets so loud “you couldn’t even hear yourself think” — was reminiscent of a sectional championship game.
The win gave SJ-O a share of the IPC crown, with one final conference game at Paxton-Buckley-Loda scheduled for Tuesday.
“We knew it was going to be a battle, and we just stuck together and got it done in the end,” Smith said. “It’s a big step for us. It gives us a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum going into the postseason.”