Mission accomplished. But it wasn’t easy.
Pekin beat Arlington Heights Hersey 56-44 Wednesday night at Hawkins Gym in an opening-round game of the 53rd annual Pekin Insurance Holiday Tournament.
The Dragons (5-6) had to hold off the Huskies (4-8) down the stretch after building a 28-point lead late in the first half.
“Not the way we drew it up, but we’re happy about the win,” said Pekin coach Jeff Walraven.
Because of the win, Pekin will play in Hawkins Gym for its final three tournament games. Had the Dragons lost to Hersey, they would have played downstairs in Custer-Stoudt Gym for at least their next two tournament games.
Pekin has lost in the opening round only four times (1986, 1993, 2005 and 2008) in tournament history.
The Dragons led Hersey 41-16 at halftime. It was 41-13 -- there’s that 28-point lead -- until the Huskies’ Matt Hanushewsky canned a triple at the buzzer.
Everything went right for Pekin in the first half. The Dragons scored at will, shooting 15-for-26 from the floor, and their defense forced Hersey into 14 turnovers.
Pekin scored 14 straight points in one stretch to pull in front 27-6.
For good measure, Pekin also was 8-for-8 at the free throw line.
“That was the best half we’ve played in a couple years,” Walraven said. “We played at a high level on both ends of the court.”
But the second half belonged to Hersey.
The Huskies went on a 13-1 tear to crawl within 42-29 with about three minutes left in the third quarter.
A put-back basket by Mitchell Cascia and a 3-pointer by Max Jones helped Pekin build its lead back to 47-31 after three quarters, but Hersey wasn’t done.
A tip-in by Joe Nugent made it 49-40 with about 4 1/2 minutes left in the game, cutting Pekin’s lead to single-digits for the first time since late in the first quarter.
Two huge plays by Cascia allowed Dragons fans to exhale. He scored on a drive to the basket and on the ensuing possession, he stole a Hersey pass and fed Christian Hill for an uncontested layup with 3:17 to go that made it 53-40.
Hersey coach Steve Messer said his team had nowhere to go but up after the first half.
“We hit rock bottom in the first half. The kids just went out and played in the second half and they got their confidence back after they scored some points,” he said.
“Give Pekin credit. They did a good job working the ball around offensively and getting inside in the first half. How we played defensively in the second half is more indicative of our team.”
Walraven said he talked to his team at halftime about not getting complacent because of its huge lead, but it still happened. He worried about Hersey coming back in the second half if it made some baskets, and that happened, too.
“Hersey was getting some second-chance baskets in the first half and that became a bigger factor in the second half,” Walraven said.
“The game boiled down to us taking advantage of them and them taking advantage of us when the other team wasn’t playing well defensively.”
Eight players scored for Pekin, led by Jones and Cascia with 10 points apiece. Jace Link had eight points, including 6-for-6 at the free throw line, and Jack Halstead and Patrick Torrey each had seven points.
Link pulled down a game-high seven rebounds and Torrey had five boards.
The Dragons shot 48 percent from the field (21-for-44) and were 11-for-15 on free throws.
Hersey could have done more damage with better long-range shooting. The Huskies were 4-for-23 on three-pointers for a chilly 17 percent. Overall, they shot 41 percent from the floor (18-for-44).
Ryan Verhulst and Nugent each had eight points for Hersey and Hanushewsky had seven. Jacob Kluczewski had six rebounds.
After committing 14 turnovers in the first half, Hersey had just four in the second half.
Steve Stein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.