PRINCETON — J.J. Vaccaro did his best to keep the season going for the Princeton Tigers, in Tuesday’s 2A regional play-in game at Prouty Gym against Prophetstown.
Down by 10 points (50-40), the Tigers rallied behind their senior guard, who had 12 of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter. Vaccaro had a final fling for a potential game-tying 3-pointer as time ran out, but missed with the Tigers falling 59-56.
“None of us wanted it to end. We all thought we were going to win,” Vaccaro said. “Coach told us someone needs to step up and take over because it might be our last game so I decided I would.”
“I challenged those guys during a timeout, and he responded well,” PHS coach Jesse Brandt said. “When he decided to just shoot it and not worry about all year long, that’s when it seemed to go in for him. I was kind of surprised the last one didn’t go in for him that it was going.”
Junior guard/forward Garrett Duffin added 18 points for the Tigers. Prophetstown’s Ethan Howard led all scorers with 23 points.
PHS (5-22) held a 30-25 halftime lead, but was outscored 19-5 in the third quarter, the Tigers struggling against the Prophets switch to an extended 1-3-1 zone late in the second quarter. Zach Hicks hit an early 3, but the Tigers did not score again until a Vaccaro putback at the 1:42 mark to snap a 12-0 Prophets run.
A non-call on a likely over-and-back violation by the Prophets helped fuel their run. Grant Ames hit a three immediately and Chris Bauer converted a layup and 3-point play off a steal. Brandt took a timeout to discus the non-call with the officials.
“It was definitely a big part of the game. It was part of that run in the third quarter,” Brandt said. “The official said he was blocked out and couldn’t see it. It’s unfortunate those things happened.”
Vaccaro followed his basket and two free throws by Hicks with a three to make it 52-47 with 2:57 remaining. Vaccaro then took the Tigers on his back.
He scored on a drive to cut the Prophets’ lead to 55-51 and after Hicks drew a charge, Vaccaro hooped again to make it 55-53.
Vaccaro missed on a drive to tie the game, leading to the Tigers fouling Josh Sigel. The Prophets 6-4 senior made both free throws, his only successful shots on the night, to push the Prophets lead to 57-53.
Vaccaro hit a three to cut the Prophets’ lead to 57-56 and Brant quickly called for time.
PHS fouled Ames with 2.8 remaining and his two free throws put the Prophets back up there.
Vaccaro was able to rush an off-balanced three-point attempt, at the buzzer, which ricocheted off the top of the back board and rolled away from the basket.
“I think we were down 10 with about four minutes to go and could have folded the tents. We battled and battled, made some plays, took a couple of charges, hit some shots down the stretch,” Brandt said. “Unfortunately, we ran out of time there at the end. Third quarter, outscord us 19-5. I think a huge difference in the game obviously. Proud of the effort the guys gave for sure.”
Notes: The Prophets (15-13) advanced to face top-seeded Seneca (22-5) in Wednesday’s first regional semifinal. The nightcap matched No. 2 Hall (17-11) vs. No. 3 Bureau Valley (19-11). Those stories will run at www.bcrnews.com/sports and in Saturday’s print edition. ... Members of the Prophetstown girls basketball team, which will make its first appearance at State on Friday, were in attendance Tuesday, cheering for their boys.
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