The game was played at Peoria's pace. The Panthers held a clear advantage on the boards. Saguaro's trademark three-point shooting was M.I.A. most of the night.
No. 2 seed Peoria (22-7) got everything it wanted in Thursday's 4A-I boys basketball semifinal against No. 3 Scottsdale Saguaro (23-8) at Jobing.com Arena. Except a victory.
Saguaro matched Peoria's defense stop for stop and made five of six free throws in the final 1:22 to squeak into the finals with a 36-33 win.
"I was proud of our kids because it isn't our pace. We tried to push the tempo, but we couldn't hit our transition buckets," Saguaro coach Bob La Rue said. "I don't think that we won the rebounding battle, but we got the ones that we had to. That's why I'm proud of the kids because this wasn't our style. I'm not exactly sure how we won, but we hit some big shots when we needed to."
Both teams knew this game would be markedly different than the Sabercats' 66-50 win Feb. 8 on their home floor. Peoria was without leader, junior point guard Dewayne Russell, who missed the contest after being ejected Feb. 3 against Avondale Agua Fria.
Russell leads the Panthers in scoring (21.7) and assists (6.9). Yet his insertion Thursday had the effect of bringing the score down, thanks to his ability to hound Saguaro's shooters on the perimeter and to slow the game's tempo.
"That's why we held them to 36. Him being able to defend (sophomore Ryan) Berg like that takes one aspect of their offense away," Peoria coach Michael Serwa said. "It allowed Lawrence to solely focus on (senior guard Jack) Connors, who hit tough shots. I thought we did a great job defensively."
Russell was the Panthers' offense in the first half, putting in 11 of Peoria's 14 points. His three from the top of the key five seconds before halftime gave the team a one-point lead.
The first two minutes of the second half was an offensive explosion - by this game's standards. Peoria scored six points, and Saguaro picked up eight, including two treys by senior guard Ross Heyl, to go up by one.
But both teams quickly settled back into a trot, combining for five points in the last six minutes of the quarter. With Russell receiving most of the defensive attention, fellow junior Lawrence Pierce broke free, scoring seven of the Panthers' nine points.
Still, Peoria never really solved Saguaro's zone and occasional half-court traps. The Sabercats made things tough for Russell - who did not score in the second half - and Pierce. No other Peoria player scored more than four points.
"What they did was they just kind of pushed us off our spots and forced us to start our offense further back than we needed to be," Serwa said. "They overloaded on Dewayne and Lawrence and we needed guys to step up on the weak side and get strong screens and seals. We didn't have that tonight. Their defense was tough. They really took a lot away."
On the other end, Saguaro kept missing good, but contested, looks from beyond the arc. The Sabercats shared the offensive load more evenly but struggled with Peoria's lateral quickness.
"We dind't shoot well at all and we had good looks all day. Part of that might be the arena, part of it was nerves," La Rue said.
The teams entered the fourth quarter tied at 23. Pierce continued to roll, making a layup off a pretty feed from Russell.
Connors began to match Pierce on the other end, tying the game at 25.
On Peoria's next possession, senior center Jason McAuley grabbed an offensive rebound and hit a cutting Goch Ajak for a layup before his momentum carried him out of bounds.
McAuley played heavy minutes in the post, giving the Panthers a more active option against Saguaro's shooters than 6-11 starting center Stephen Hadley. He swept the glass all night, finishing with a game-high 14 rebounds.
"He was a monster tonight on the boards. I tease him a lot about being soft, cause he's not, he's a Division 1 tight end," Serwa said. "That's how we know Jason, to be tough and physical. I'm definitely going to miss that kid. (Fellow senior) Gerrick Burns is another one. He's a really tough defender. We'll miss a lot of his leadership as well."
Heyl regained the lead for Saguaro by driving for a layup, getting fouled and making his free throw. Burns responded with two free throws after Russell fed him the ball.
With 2:55 remaining, Connors hit the big three the Sabercats had been waiting for. His step-back jumper put Saguaro up 31-29.
"Jack hit some tough shots. Ross hit a few big shots," La Rue said.
Pierce was called for traveling, but Peoria regained the ball after senior forward Arthur Martinet's short turnaround rimmed out. McAuley grabbed another huge offensive board and followed to tie the game at the 1:59 mark.
On Saguaro's next trip, senior forward D.J. Blum drew a foul and made his second free throw. Peoria missed and Martinet was fouled while grabbing the rebound. He made both shots.
Another offensive rebound and follow, this time by Ajak, gave the Panthers life with 27 seconds left. Connors was fouled. His first free throw just rolled in and the second swished through.
Peoria trailed 36-33 and had 14 seconds to tie. Russell got off a three from the top of the key, which bounced off the front of the rim.
It was a sad bit of deja vu for Peoria's star, whose three to tie against Dysart in a 2010 quarterfinal rimmed out.
That near miss was a catalyst for this team's drive to the final four. And with Peoria's top three scorers, rebounders and passers - Russell, Pierce and Ajak - returning, there's plenty of fuel for the 2012 team.
"(The push for 2012) has probably started right now. Dewayne is thinking about that right now," Serwa said. "He's a competitor. He understands winning and he deserves winning. He took the steps to make himself a better player this year. We'll talk about this game forever and be better prepared next year."
Saguaro gets a title shot at 4 p.m. Saturday against 4A's Cinderella story, No. 5 seed Nogales, which stunned No. 1 Kellis 66-63 in Thursday's second game. The Sabercats enter the finals riding a 15-game winning streak. Thursday, Connors was the only Saguaro player in double figures, tying Pierce for the game high with 12.
"They've had to listen to me for three years about Saguaro basketball. The last two years we haven't lived up to expectations, and I think they got tired of listening to me talking about the past," La Rue said. "Somewhere after Christmas we started competing on every possession, instead of throwing away some possessions like we did early on."
Serwa said the only thing he could ask for this year was four more points. The first-year head coach replaced the retired Ken Troutt and described his inaugural varsity squad as a pleasure to coach.
"We really were a family, from the assistant coaches, to the managers to the players. We never had any issues on the team," Serwa said. "I'm going to miss the bonds that we had together. We've just got to forge one next year and keep going."