CARTHAGE, Ill. -- The gesture was subtle enough not many of the fans heading for the exits saw what Graci Bastert did.
She was OK with that. In fact, she would have been fine if no one saw at all.
As it was, a few fans noticed the Illini West junior point guard give former Chargers coach Zach Keene a little nudge as she ran past him on her way to the locker room following the Chargers' 70-43 victory over Macomb -- Keene's new team -- on Thursday night.
"We're all still friends with him," Bastert said. "We all still like him."
And they're moving on without him.
Thursday wasn't about Keene's return to Illini West, where he coached girls basketball for seven seasons before being unceremoniously fired by the school board last spring. It was about a group of student-athletes caught in the turmoil created by adults who showed they could persevere.
"There was definitely some tension that came along with this game, and we all knew it was going to be high intensity throughout the entire," Bastert said. "So we knew we had to come better prepared for this game than any other game."
At the same time, they had to avoid the trappings of the turmoil.
"I explained to them that we had to control our composure," said Illini West coach Grant Surprenant, whose team has won four of its last six games after an 0-5 start.
"We couldn't listen to the crowds or the media or anything else. We had to worry about the 12 of us in the locker room sticking together and holding our composure. We did a great job of that."
It was better than anyone could have expected.
"They played fabulous," Keene said. "They played inspired basketball."
Inspiration wasn't hard to find.
Last March, in the wake of the Chargers winning a Class 2A regional championship, the Illini West School Board voted 4-3 not to rehire Keene, who compiled a 141-68 record with four regional titles and a third-place state finish in seven seasons coaching Carthage/Illini West.
A month later, the controversial decision was revisited and the board again voted 4-3 to uphold the decision.
Two months later, Macomb hired Keene and the healing process began.
Thursday night, the process came full circle.
"It's good to know that they are continuing to carry on what we built," Keene said. "It was really good to see the kids tonight and see them working hard. ... They are going to be a tremendous ballclub."
Even Keene admitted it was difficult to see that from the opposing sideline.
"It was real weird," Keene said. "It's not something we've been fretting, but you're a little sick to your stomach knowing you're going to go back and sit on the opposite side. So it was weird."
At the same time, it was reassuring.
Illini West dismantled Macomb with defense, forcing 29 turnovers and limiting the Bombers to 34 percent shooting. Macomb didn't score during the first five minutes of the second half.
That's reminiscent of Keene's teams.
"For the last eight years, we did nothing but preach, ‘Protect your house. Don't let anybody come into your house and beat you. Defend your house,'" Keene said. "It was kind of bittersweet. It's nice to see them protecting their house, but you don't want them to do it against you."
Until it was over, it didn't matter who sat on the opposing bench.
The Chargers played to win the only way they know how, the way Keene once showed them and the way Surprenant now coaches them.
That's to always persevere.
"I couldn't be happier for the girls," Surprenant said. "They deserved this."