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DEKALB — With 2.8 seconds remaining in Tuesday's Class 3A NIU supersectional and his Spartans trailing by 4 points, St. Francis senior Tim Zettinger walked up to Limestone guard Hank Mathews, wrapped his hand behind Mathews' neck, congratulated him and wished him well in this weekend's state semifinals.
There was nothing else to do.
Mathews was a big reason Limestone ended the Spartans' season with a 55-50 defeat. He scored 17 points, including the 3-pointer with 1:41 to play that put the Rockets ahead for good and four key free throws in the final 17.5 seconds just when St. Francis seemed poised to make one final run.
"Those are battlers, those guys (Spartans coach Bob Ward) was putting on the court," Limestone coach Eddie Mathews said of St. Francis. "They run their stuff well. We were having a hard time containing them. We really were having a hard time containing them. Things have been going our way here lately, and I think they did again tonight."
The Spartans (22-8) fell behind by 8 at the end of the first quarter, then started the second with an 8-0 run to tie the game. The Spartans never led, however, until Andrew Kimball opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to put them up by a point. St. Francis finished the third leading 34-32, its biggest lead 4 points.
"They got that 4-point lead, and I think that ticks off some of my guys," said Eddie Mathews, father of Hank Mathews.
Limestone (24-9) rallied in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of four straight St. Francis turnovers to take a 42-36 lead with 4:24 to play.
"Give them credit," said Ward, who went to the Limestone locker room after the game to offer his own congratulations and words of encouragement. "We didn't design that, certainly didn't want to do it. They put great ball pressure on, anticipate real well and they're arguably one of the hotter teams coming out of Peoria, and that says a lot about them."
Again the Spartans rallied. Jason Pisarski hit a 3-pointer, Matt Bonner scored and Zettinger converted a pair of free throws for a 43-42 Spartans lead.
"They made what looked like it might be kind of a finishing-off-type run, and to our kids' credit, and this group of kids hasn't quit all year long, we came back and took the lead again," Ward said. "They're just a very good team. They've got some very good players."
Limestone took the lead back with a David Anderson basket, and Bonner responded with a baseline drive for a layup with 1:53 to go, setting up Mathews' 3-pointer that put Limestone ahead for good.
"I kind of was just playing basketball," Hank Mathews said of his second 3-pointer of the night. "I came to give the ball to (Terence) Shelby and they denied him. I came off and they both went with him. I found myself open, and I spend so much time in the gym it's just like another shot to me."
When Pisarski banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 18.8 seconds to go, St. Francis was within 2 points and looking to rally one more time. But Mathews kept making his free throws, and Shelby's steal in the final seconds left the Spartans without any options.
"The clock ran out with them with the run," Ward said. "We felt like we had a shot of possibly getting a 3 there that last possession and getting a timeout."
Pisarski led the Spartans with 13 points and 6 rebounds, and Bonner added 10 points. Zettinger dished 7 assists in addition to his 6 points.
The Spartans shot just 42 percent from the field but said they weren't affected by the 5 blocks Anderson swatted.
"They're a really athletic team," Spartans senior Kevin McShea said, "but we played a lot of athletic teams this year, so not really. We came in with the same mindset: defense is our strength and just do what we do."
It was the second straight season St. Francis had gone deep into the postseason, last year pulling off a couple of upsets to reach the sectional championship game.
"We always come out with the mindset that we can beat anybody," Zettinger said. "Tonight we just didn't have it. Last year we went out and beat some good Chicago teams, this year we went out and beat some good teams out west. Tonight we just didn't have it. We played a good game but came up short."
Follow Orrin on Twitter @orrin_schwarz