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When West Aurora reserve Roland Griffin entered the Class 4A Bolingbrook sectional Wednesday night, the first shot he put up from the left baseline missed everything, not even coming close to the rim.
The sophomore admitted afterward to a bit of nerves, certainly understandable given the jam-packed crowd at Bolingbrook and the high level of basketball by both teams in a classic postseason game that featured 17 lead changes and 7 ties.
But just when you would expect those nerves might show up at the most inopportune time -- like the fourth quarter when the teams traded the lead seven times in the final three minutes -- Griffin instead was a picture of poise under pressure.
With Josh McAuley and Spencer Thomas, who combined for 22 points and 11 rebounds, on the bench with four fouls each, Griffin made back-to-back key plays that kept No. 1 seed Oswego from ever gaining a two-possession lead.
McAuley returned moments later, threw down the third of his two-hand slams with 21 seconds to go to put the Blackhawks up 61-60, then swatted an Oswego shot out of bounds with 9.7 seconds left. The top-seeded Panthers (28-3) missed twice in the final seconds, and No. 4 West Aurora held on for a 1-point win in a riveting semifinal that sends the Blackhawks (23-6) into Friday's sectional championship game against either Neuqua Valley or Benet.
"I was a little bit nervous," Griffin said of his early airball. "I had lost my confidence so I had to get it back by making plays, playing hard, and it all starts on defense."
Defensively, Griffin was part of a gritty Blackhawk effort against Oswego stars Elliott McGaughy and Miles Simelton. The duo still found a way to score 20 and 19 points, respectively.
It was on the other end that Griffin helped save the day for West Aurora. After McGaughy had sent the Oswego fans into a frenzy with a 3-point play off a putback basket to put the Panthers up 52-50, McAuley was called for a charge -- his fourth foul -- and momentum was slipping away.
But on West Aurora's next possession, Griffin skied for a rebound and scored on a second-chance basket to tie the game.
"I saw the ball coming off the rim, I knew it was coming long," Griffin said. "I just jumped."
It was how high that Griffin jumped that turned heads, though it's nothing teammates like Thomas haven't seen in practice.
"He can jump above everybody," Thomas said. "I'm really proud of him. We tell him all the time you have to play big now. I think he proved it out here tonight. He realizes it's his time to shine now. The seniors are going to leave and it's good experience for him."
"He was above everybody wasn't he?," West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman said. "That kid has a lot of potential. I think he can really be an outstanding player by the team he's a senior or maybe even next year. We've got to get his motor running a little bit more. Sometimes he plays too casual. But I tell you the kid has got ability. He seems to play under pressure pretty well."
Griffin wasn't finished. After a free throw from Oswego sophomore Zach West gave the Panthers a 53-52 lead, Griffin beat his man off the dribble and banked in a drive to put the Blackhawks ahead 54-53 with 2:52 left.
"I knew he was forcing me baseline so I just took what the defense gave me," said Griffin who said his coaches and mother have helped make the transition to varsity basketball easier for him this year.
"I knew I had to come in and play hard and keep up the energy they (McAuley and Thomas) were putting in. We knew coming into the game it was going to be hard. We wanted to stop their penetration. We played our game and got stops at the end."
While West scored 11 points for Oswego, Panthers coach Kevin Schnable was equally impressed with Griffin's clutch plays with the game -- and season -- on the line.
"He hurt us," Schnable said. "The lesson to be learned there is expect the unexpected. Our sophomore scored in double figures. For those two kids being sophomores to step up in a game like that is a neat thing for Gordie and it's a neat thing for us. That's what this time of year is all about. You need one guy to step up and make plays and he was it for them."
Follow John Lemon on Twitter @jlemonDH