The Larkin boys basketball team knew at some point during Friday's Class 4A Jacobs sectional championship game it would endure Rockford Jefferson's unnerving ball pressure.
Little did the Royals know it would come during the absolute worst time: the game's final three minutes. And what a test it was for the Royals to punch their ticket to Tuesday's supersectional at NIU.
After the 60-55 win over Jefferson to take home the first sectional hardware since 2005, maybe that frantic, three-3 minute span might've been the best in program history to date.
The Royals (24-8), who led 55-42 with 3:33 left after Victor Perez's corner 3-pointer, showed all the heart they had after the J-Hawks (26-7) turned on the pressure, hit 3-straight 3s during a 48-second span and cut it to 55-53 on an 11-0 run with 2:02 left.
Larkin, though, answered and ended the run with Anthony Lynch's putback off two Jalen Shaw misses with 55 seconds left and Shaw concluded matters off a subsequent J-Hawk 3-point miss with a thunderous one-handed slam with 39 seconds left that sent Royals' fans into a craze and Larkin to its first Elite Eight.
"It feels good, it's crazy. We made it from a long way. It was a long way to go," said Shaw, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds. "We were just patient. This is what we've been waiting for since day one. Ever since the first practice after we played Jefferson."
The Royals, who avenged an 11-point loss to Jefferson on November 25 and last year's sectional final loss to Jacobs at Elgin, did so shooting a 49 percent clip and winning the edge on the boards 33-17. But they received an MVP performance from Lynch, who scored 24 points to go with 3 steals, 3 highlight reel dunks and a big defensive charge with 1:31 to go. He was a key cog in helping the Royals to Tuesday's 7:30 p.m. showdown in DeKalb against Benet, which beat Willowbrook 67-40 Friday.
"It's unbelievable," Lynch said of the win. "It just shows a lot about this team, about how we work. This isn't easy."
It surely wasn't. Although Larkin trailed by as many as 6 in the first quarter, it used a 9-0 run to end to quarter to lead by 3. The Royals took a 1-point lead into the half but exploded in the third outscoring Jefferson 16-9 thanks to Lynch, who dunked Larkin's way to a 44-36 lead after three. Lynch scored 11 points in the quarter and then others got involved in the fourth. Threes from Perez and Pierre Black, not to mention another dunk by Shaw, had it looking like Larkin would blow out Jefferson by double digits. But not so fast. Jefferson, led by Terry Ford's 16 points and MyQuion Garrett's 14, wouldn't let Larkin off that easy.
"You work to build a lead so that if a run like that happens you still have the lead," Royals coach Deryn Carter said. "But the one thing was we handled the ball well down the stretch. Under a minute we got enough stops."
Stops were crucial. They didn't come until the end, and Garrett fired two 3s before Larkin locked up on defense.
"We freaked out a little bit," Lynch said about Jefferson's pressure. "But we got into a huddle and I think those are very important and it got us focused."
Jefferson, which totaled 12 turnovers, shot just 41 percent from the field and struggled at times in the second half, shooting 11 of 29 from the field. The J-Hawks couldn't get play after play Larkin seemed to get, as well as control of the boards or the 50-50 balls that Larkin got all night.
"In a two possession game those were huge," J-Hawks coach Todd Brannan said. "We were down 2 with 1:30 left and all those little bounces went their way. They're a good team, I wish them the best. They play the right way, they play hard."