BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — NORMAL — Multiple times in the past two seasons, the Danville boys basketball team had put themselves in a position to win, only to see it slip away at the end.
Second-year coach Ted Houpt always talked about his pride in his team and how they just needed to keep fighting to get over that hump.
The Vikings have followed his instructions and in the past two weeks, they have reaped their rewards.
On Monday night, Danville claimed their first regional victory in three seasons with a 63-55 win over Normal West in a quarterfinal contest at the Normal Community Regional.
“I think we figured out that if you keep grinding, you keep working hard, you can get wins — but they’re not easy,’’ said Houpt, whose team have won four of its last five. “When you play hard, compete and come up short, you can feel proud about your effort. But, it’s a whole different level to grind it out and win those games.
“A couple of these wins down the stretch, like tonight, have been real grinds. Normal West is a great team to learn from, because regardless of who they have on the floor, they will fight and scrape.’’
The Wildcats, who had won the last two Class 4A regional titles, almost overcame a 17-point deficit in Monday’s contest.
Normal West (9-20) got within 54-51 with 1 minute and 31 seconds left, but Danville senior Denzel Smith scored seven of his game-high 21 in the final 1:20, including making five straight free throws to secure the Vikings second regional victory in the past eight seasons.
“We didn’t want our season to be over. We are not done fighting,’’ said Smith. “We’ve just came together as a family, as brothers. We weren’t going to allow any more bad losses. We just decided to play hard and win a regional championship.’’
Senior Kyle Butler, who had 18 points and a team-high four assists, admitted that Danville’s 38-36 victory in overtime over Normal West on Friday night was a boost for the Vikings (10-16).
“It all started with Friday’s win over them,’’ he said. “I feel that gave us a lot of confidence coming into tonight’s game.’’
And that confidence turned into the best shooting night for the Vikings this season.
Not only did Smith and Butler combine for 45 points, but the senior duo was also an amazing 15-of-22 from the field and the Vikings finished the night making 70 percent (21-of-30) of their shots.
“That’s putting the ball in the hole,’’ said Houpt, who is well-known for his shooting ability. “I knew we shot it well, I didn’t know we shot it that well. We had a shootaround before we left Danville — and we will be doing that from here on out.’’
But, how can anyone explain a team making 7-of-12 from 3-point range?
“We always knew we could shoot,’’ said Butler, who had three of his team’s 3-pointers. “It was just a matter of it clicking at the right time. Hopefully, we will continue shooting like that.’’
Houpt pointed out that Butler does more than just shoot the ball well for Danville.
“I can’t say enough about his poise,’’ he said. “He came out and shot it real well to get us started, but he really carries a heavy load for us. He doesn’t have eye-popping stats, but what he does against pressure, getting us into our offense is quietly spectacular.’’
Butler and Smith combined for 28 points in the first half as Danville had a 37-21 lead at the break.
“It was a great start, but we knew we were not going to blow them out,’’ Houpt said. “With their style of basketball will always keep them close. We needed that cushion. We needed to have a lead while we learn how to close out a game in a tournament atmosphere.’’
Monday’s regional victory validates a lot of hard work that the Vikings have put in this season, going through a number of close-but-not-quite losses.
“This is what you get when you keep going and you keep working,’’ Houpt said. “As long as we play with character, heart and together, good things are going to happen.’’
Smith said it was just a matter of time.
“Even when we were going through some of those losses, we kept getting stronger and stronger,’’ he said. “It took us some time to come together.’’
“We are connecting better as a team on the floor,’’ he said. “The team chemistry is finally there.’’
Up next for Danville is the top-seeded Bradley-Bourbonnais Boilermakers (18-6) in a regional semifinal contest at 6 p.m. tonight. Normal Community and Bloomington will play in the other semifinal at 7:30 p.m.
“I’m confident that our kids are going to compete well,’’ Houpt said. “We are going to be a little more relaxed, because the pressure is always on the No. 1 seed in this situation.’’
Butler points out that while the Vikings don’t know much about the Boilermakers, the opposite is also true.
Josh Robinson was the leading score for Normal West with 23, while senior Zach Breen had 15 for the Wildcats.