DeKALB -- Larkin boys basketball coach Deryn Carter would like to say his Royals' missed free throws was what beat Larkin in its 71-63 Class 4A sectional semifinal loss against Rockford Jefferson.
But it wasn't just the missed free throws Wednesday night in DeKalb.
Although the Royals sank just 14 of 23 from the line and missed 5 in the second half, Larkin (23-6) turned the ball over 21 times, fell behind by 9 points at the half and struggled with a bigger, more physical J-Hawk squad that ran a 3-2 defense that somewhat stymied the Royals to shoot 22 for 57 from the field.
Even as Larkin erased the deficit with a 13-2 run to begin the third quarter with menacing defense, and held a 2-point lead with 5:34 to go in the fourth, all the little things in the first half really came back and haunted the Royals. Antoine Pittman and Jared Mayes, the son of 1975 Elgin High graduate and former Maroons' and Illinois State standout Derrick Mayes, proved to be too much down low and a hot Jefferson team who's won 5 of its last 6 is moving on.
Jefferson will play the winner of tonight's game between Crystal Lake Central and Rockford Boylan on Friday for the sectional title.
"The turnovers (were) extremely disappointing. We have too good of guards and I think they sped us up a bit and, we didn't practice (Tuesday, due to the snowstorm)," Carter said. "A lot of those are excuses. They just beat us. They played hard. They did what they needed to do to win and they're a young group, and that's why they're moving on."
Mayes, with his dad in attendance, scored 23 points and hauled in 17 rebounds while Pittman added 21 points and 5 rebounds as both had key buckets in the second half. Jefferson (20-12) outrebounded the Royals 32-19.
"We didn't rebound well, they outrebounded us, we didn't get back on defense, we were turning the ball over and we couldn't keep them out of the paint," said Larkin's Kendale McCullum. "It was really tough trying to get back in the sectional, so you know it's not going to be easy because they made it for a reason and if we didn't get down in the beginning of the game, it would have been a better game for us."
Quantice Hunter led Larkin with 18 points while Quentin Ruff scored 15 points and McCullum added 9 points and 9 assists.
The Royals entered the second half down 9 but outscored the J-Hawks by 11 in the first 3 minutes of the third and capped the 13-2 run when McCullum found Brayden Rose on a cut to take a 38-36 lead.
From there, the lead changed 7 times and toward the later stages of the third Jefferson went on a 7-3 run and grabbed a 5-point lead into the fourth.
Larkin roared back to tie it at 54 when Derrick Streety, who scored 11 points off the bench, found Hunter in the left corner for a 3-pointer, and one of McCullum's 3 steals led to a Ruff layup that gave Larkin a 58-56 lead with 5:34 to go.
"We made a run, they kind of made another run, and then we tied it up with 6 to go and I thought we had the game," Carter said. "Our guys tried to do it. We just didn't get over that one hump to make it a four or a five-point game. They made big plays down the stretch and made all their free throws."
Mayes and Pittman answered in the lane with consecutive baskets at the rim to take a 4-point lead. Hunter had a chance to tie it after he was fouled with 2:40 left but missed the back end and that seemed to be the theme for the Royals.
Then when Montel Brown grabbed an offensive rebound with 1:07 left and converted an old-fashioned 3-point play for a 67-63 J-Hawk lead, Larkin's season appeared to be over.
"The game shouldn't have been that close but we didn't do what we had to do to get the game in our favor." Hunter said. "We didn't come out and be ourselves right away, we were playing their tempo and we like to play fast and the game was pretty slow and I felt like tempo was a big thing."