By DAVID ADAMHerald-Whig Staff Writer
PEORIA, Ill. -- Had a poll been taken Jan. 1 ranking the six high school basketball teams in Adams County, Unity likely would have been ranked last.
Payson Seynour was ranked No. 1 in the Class 1A state poll at the time, and Liberty wasn't far behind the Indians. Quincy High School obviously is much larger than the other Adams County schools, Central was a solid team that eventually earned a top seed in its regional, and Quincy Notre Dame had just come off winning three out of four games in a Christmas tournament.
Well, it had lost by 24 points to Central and 21 to Liberty. It opened the season by losing five of its first seven games, and its record was a meager 5-6 after losing by 24 points to Payson Seymour in the finals of the Mississippi Valley Invitational Tournament.
"We were all disappointed in the way we had been playing," Mustangs senior Will Klusmeyer said. "That was pretty disappointing for us."
So to see the Mustangs transform themselves from the worst team in their county to the third-place finisher in the Illinois Class 1A state tournament can only be classified as astonishing.
Unity roared to a 31-10 halftime lead by limiting Sesser-Valier to 17 percent shooting, then forced the Red Devils into 24 turnovers as it posted an impressive 59-43 victory Saturday afternoon at Carver Arena.
"We talked a lot about only two teams going out with a win," Mustangs coach Keith Carothers said. "I just told those guys in the locker room that today is the first time I've ever had a group of kids after the last game of the season and not tear up crying about how proud I was.
"To go out with a win makes you feel a heck of a lot more happy when you tell these guys goodbye."
Unity scored the last seven points of the first quarter to take a 14-5 lead and blanked Sesser-Valier for the last 5:09 of the second quarter. The Red Devils missed 19 of 23 shots from the field in the first half and turned the ball over six times on their last eight possessions of the half.
"Their defense just kept the pressure on us and took us out of what we normally do," Sesser-Valier coach Shane Garner said. "They had an excellent game plan, and I felt they had one of the better team defenses we've faced this year.
"Their ball pressure was fantastic. I thought their coach did a great job of calling for different stuff during the timeouts, with the traps and different things. They kept us off balance for most of the game, and it created a lot of turnovers on our part."
"We've played a lot of good shooters in the last five, six games, and it's something we really focused on," Carothers said. "The guys did a good job of taking away easy looks."
The Red Devils closed to within 37-23 after two free throws by Tyler Baxter with 2:48 left in the third quarter, but Unity scored 10 of the next 12 points.
Sesser-Valier made one last run when Jordan Gunter's 3-pointer made it 47-34 with 6:01 to play, but Unity put it away by going on a 12-2 run. Alex Blickhan made back-to-back steals that were converted into layups, putting Unity ahead by 23 with four minutes to go.
The big lead allowed Carothers to take his seniors out of the game one last time and receive adoration from the large Unity crowd.
"It was awesome to get all of those guys out there," Carothers said. "Klusmeyer said to me (as he came off the floor), ‘You put me in for five seconds.' The crowd was going crazy, and I pointed up there and said, ‘That's why,' so those fans could give you a little bit of love."
When Blickhan left the floor, he had an embrace for everybody -- coaches, players and trainers.
"To finish in a fashion like this … I just wanted to give them all a big hug, each and every one of them," he said.
"It was a great way to end," Klusmeyer said.
Senior Lane Davis led the Mustangs with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Blickhan had 13 points, and Klusmeyer added 10.