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FREEPORT — St. Francis answered every challenge. A lineup of battle-tested veterans will do that.
Rockford Lutheran erased a 10-point deficit to tie the sectional championship late in the third quarter? No problem.
The Crusaders wiped out a 7-point deficit to pull even again midway through the fourth? The Spartans had an answer.
St. Francis and its five senior starters with memories of losing in the sectional final last year took everything that Rockford Lutheran could throw at it and held on for a 63-60 victory in the Class 3A Freeport sectional championship game.
The Spartans will play Bartonville Limestone at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the DeKalb supersectional, the second such trip in school history.
"We were in the sectional final last season and our starting five all being seniors were on that team, and we all know what it's like to play in big games," said Tim Zettinger, one of those five seniors. "We just told ourselves to calm down and just be ready for them to make a run, because they're a great team."
Zettinger scored a game-high 22 points that included 10 of 12 fourth-quarter free throws to help ice the game. Andrew Kimball added 21 points for the Spartans (22-7). Kilian Brown again came up big off the bench with 9 points and 7 rebounds, and Jason Pisarski grabbed 8 rebounds for the Spartans.
Thomas Kopelman scored 20 points for Lutheran (25-5), but the Crusaders couldn't get much else going against the Spartans' gritty defense.
Rockford Lutheran tried to force the tempo, but the Spartans were up for the challenge, with Zettinger either driving the lane, getting it inside to Brown and Matt Bonner, or kicking it out to Kimball for open 3-pointers.
Kimball made four from long range on the way to a 14-point first half.
"We've got five seniors that start, and they're mature kids," said St. Francis coach Bob Ward. "They never let the ups and downs of the game get to them. They hit free throws when we needed to. That was as amazing a game as we've played last year or this year."
A layup by Brown put the Spartans up 42-32, but the Crusaders answered with 10 straight points, tying the game on a 3-pointer by Joseph Kellen. The Spartans built the lead back to 51-44 on the last of Kimball's six 3-pointers, but the Crusaders responded with a 9-2 run to tie it once again.
The Spartans slowly built the lead to 63-57, with Zettinger scoring their final eight points. Tarence Roby's 3-pointer at the buzzer was too little, too late for Rockford Lutheran.
With time running down and St. Francis already in the double bonus, Rockford Lutheran had little choice but to foul Zettinger, who calmly knocked them in.