Pekin boys basketball coach Jeff Walraven knew exactly what to tell his team before its game Saturday night against Washington.
“I told the guys we had to execute offensively and defensively and if we didn’t match or exceed Washington’s energy and intensity, we’d give them a shot to win,” Walraven said.
“Of course, that’s the stock talk I give to our team whenever we play Washington. They battle you.”
The Panthers had more in their emotional tank than usual Saturday.
They were playing their third game without Coach Kevin Brown, who is battling brain cancer, and their second game since Assistant Coach Eric Schermerhorn was named interim coach after Brown went on a medical leave.
The Dragons heeded their coach’s advice.
Pekin beat visiting Washington 60-35 in Hawkins Gym, moving into a tie for second place with Morton in the suddenly close race for the Mid-Illini Conference championship.
The Dragons (12-11, 8-3) have won three straight conference games by a combined 75 points. They’ll have a shot at first-place Metamora (18-8, 8-2) on Friday night in the Redbirds’ gym.
“Pekin has a recipe for success right now. They have an inside-outside game that’s difficult to defend,” Schermerhorn said.
The inside presence is 6-foot-7 Patrick Torrey, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds against Washington (7-18, 3-8) despite being the focus of the Panthers’ defense.
Pekin’s outside game is a wealth of deadly shooters. The Dragons shot 55 percent from the field Saturday including 8-for-14 on triples.
Justin Taphorn matched Torrey’s 14 points, Adam Cash had 11 points and Max Jones had 10 points for the Dragons.
Taphorn, who scored Pekin’s first seven points, was 6-for-7 from the field for the game and he had six rebounds. Cash was 3-for-4 on three-pointers.
Torrey struggled from the free throw line early, but he was 7-for-8 in the fourth quarter and he finished 10-for-15. As a team, Pekin was 20-for-28 at the foul line.
“Sometimes Patrick lets his misses on free throws affect him,” Walraven said. “We tell him he has to move on to the next one because he’s going to get fouled.”
Washington’s shooting was off Saturday. The young Panthers shot a chilly 30 percent from the field (14-for-46) and were 1-for-15 on three-pointers.
Isaac Mapson had a strong game for Washington. The 6-5 freshman had 12 points and eight rebounds before he fouled out with 5:32 left in the fourth quarter. Devon Vanderheydt had eight points for the Panthers.
Gus Lucas, another freshman who is Washington’s top offensive threat, was held to four points. Sophomore Tyler Bass had the Panthers’ lone triple, in the first quarter.
Washington had beaten Morton and Limestone in the previous seven days without Brown on the bench. Saturday was the first time the Panthers had to deal with a loss in his absence.
“It’s an emotional time,” Schermerhorn said. “Everyone on our team wants his teammates to succeed. But we didn’t get better tonight. We stayed on the same step. We have to keep improving.”
Schermerhorn and Brown are more just fellow coaches. They’re close friends.
“I miss him having Kevin around. We all miss him. Our team is a family,” Schermerhorn said.
Pekin led Washington 25-10 at halftime, finishing the half with a buzzer-beating layup by Ryan Collier following a Panthers turnover.
Washington outscored Pekin 16-13 in the third quarter to pull within 38-26.
Down 35-16 following back-to-back triples by Cash, the Panthers scored six straight points on a pair of free throws by Lucas after Taphorn was charged with a technical foul, and two inside buckets by Mapson.
“I like how we battled in the third quarter and took charge of the lane at times,” Schermerhorn said.
The fourth quarter was all Dragons as they outscored Washington 22-9. Two triples by Jones and a three-pointer by Cash helped Pekin pull away.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.