INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Before Eastern Pekin took the floor Saturday afternoon inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse for its Class 2A state-championship matchup, the team gathered behind the basket stanchion near its bench. “1, 2, 3, together,” the Musketeers yelled as they stormed the court.
Cohesiveness has been the mantra for Eastern Pekin during this year’s improbable postseason run, one that’s included its first regional title, its inaugural semi-state win and the school’s first state-title appearance in any sport. That Cinderella story, spearheaded by the Musketeers’ team-first mentality, culminated in a state championship Saturday afternoon.
Eastern Pekin (23-7) seized early momentum and held on down the stretch to top No. 5 Oak Hill (27-2) 42-31 in Indianapolis, clinching the school’s elusive state crown. The Musketeers concluded the season on a 15-game win streak.
“We’re going to do a good job of celebrating this one and enjoying it for as long as we can,” coach Michael McBride said.
An IHSAA member school since 1964 and a first-time participant in the girls state tournament in 1980, Eastern Pekin’s win Saturday also clinched the first state championship in Washington County history. According to senior Taylor Drury, who will continue her career at the University of Indianapolis next season, a win for the community is that much sweeter.
“It means a lot, bringing it back to our community,” Drury said. “They’ve been there to support us at all the games. They’ve made it so much fun for us – all the caravans and stuff. It means a lot for us to bring this back to them.”
Drury has been a standout for the Musketeers throughout her time at Eastern Pekin. The state-championship win, McBride said, is a fitting end to her productive high-school career. She was named recipient of the IHSAA Mental Attitude Award after the game Saturday.
“I can’t speak enough about Taylor and her leadership, what she’s done over the last four years,” McBride said. “We’ve grown so close to one another – she’s like a daughter to me in some aspects. … This is a great way for her to go out because she’s put a lot of time and effort into it. I’m extremely proud of her.”
Junior Rachel Stewart paced Eastern Pekin Saturday with 20 points, five steals, four rebounds, four blocks and two assists. Drury added nine points and six rebounds, and freshmen Isabell Claywell and Kaylee Graves totaled nine and four points, respectively. Defensively, the Musketeers held Oak Hill to 29-percent shooting all the while forcing 15 turnovers.
When Eastern Pekin fell to 8-7 in late December before belting out 15 straight, McBride said he challenged his Musketeers defensively. Eastern Pekin has since held opponents to less than 40 points per outing, which included Saturday’s effort. Oak Hill entered averaging 55.6 points per game.
“Defense is really where we start with everything,” McBride said. “We don’t try to complicate, that’s the biggest thing. We’re one of the few teams that plays nothing but man-to-man, and our girls guy into it. Over time, with experience, they start to learn the rotations and the effort that it takes.”
Oak Hill opened scoring Saturday afternoon before Claywell nailed a 3-pointer to put Eastern on the board early. A Stewart layup gave the Musketeers their first lead later in the period, but the Golden Eagles’ first field goal made for an 8-5 lead late in the quarter. That advantage was short-lived.
A 3-pointer from Graves knotted the score at 8-8 on the ensuing possession, and back-to-back scores from Stewart and Drury gave the Musketeers a 12-8 lead with 1:18 left in the first. They took a 14-8 lead into the second period after closing the frame on a 9-0 run.
Eastern extended its run to 12-0 on another 3-pointer from Claywell to begin the second quarter. The Golden Eagles snapped the run on the ensuing possession, but a combined six straight from Stewart and Drury capped a 17-3 run and upped the lead to 22-11 with 2:28 until halftime. The Musketeers, who forced nine first-half turnovers and held Oak Hill to 3-for-11 shooting, led 22-14 at the break.
“At the beginning, you’re kind of anxious to get it started and everything,” Stewart said. “But whenever we got on the court, we were like, ‘Guys, what do we have to lose?’ We knew the other team was feeling anxious, too, so we just had to take the early momentum and keep it going.”
The Golden Eagles didn’t waver in the second half. Oak Hill belted out an 8-0 run to begin the third period and knotted the score at 22-22 with 2:53 left in the quarter. Stewart scored Eastern Pekin’s first basket of the third with 2:43 showing to snap the run, and the Musketeers took a 27-24 lead into the fourth.
Claywell’s third 3-pointer, on three attempts, made for a six-point lead early in the final period. Oak Hill answered before Stewart took matters into her own hands late. The junior scored eight unanswered points. Her baseline layup gave the Musketeers a 35-26 advantage with 2:24 left, and a 3-point play made for a seven-point lead with under a minute left.
“Not only do you have to be good, you have to be lucky to get here, to be in this moment,” McBride said. “We rely on our girls to make plays, and Rachel’s been one to step up and do that for us all year long. It’s big when it happens in that moment.”
When the dust settled, Drury, who was the focal point of the pre-game huddle prior to taking the floor for warm-ups Saturday, recalled her time with the Musketeers. A newly-crowned state champion, Drury said her coach, in addition to the title, made her time at Eastern Pekin memorable.
“It’s been unbelievable here,” Drury said. “I’ve had my ups and downs. Me and (coach McBride) have had our ups and downs, our little disagreements. … He’s the best coach I’ve ever seen. He just does it all, and I thank him for that.”
Eastern poses with its Class 2A championship trophy. pic.twitter.com/J2eBZ8zcAv— Kyle Williams (@thekwill) February 25, 2017
Class 2A state championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Eastern Pekin 42, Oak Hill 31
Musketeers (23-7): Rachel Stewart 20p, 5s, 4b; Taylor Drury 9p, 6r; Veronica Judson 2r, 1a; Savannah Emmert 2r, 1b; Isabell Claywell 9p, 6r; Kaylee Graves 4p; Holly Purlee 2r, 1a
Golden Eagles (27-2): Taylor Westgate 6p, 8r; Kaela Robey 6p, 7r; Adrianna Trexler 6p; Jenessa Hasty 13p, 5r; Kristen Dubois 2a