ROCK FALLS — The Mendota boys basketball team always believed, even when no one else did.
As the No. 4 seed in the Class 3A Rock Falls Regional, the Trojans pulled off their second upset of the week on Friday.
In their first season in Class 3A, the Trojans quieted the doubters in Friday’s championship game against No. 3-seeded La Salle-Peru as MHS led from start to finish and pulled out a 67-56 victory.
“This is huge,” said MHS senior Trae Blumhorst, who finished with 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. “Like coach said, no one thought we’d be here. We’re the third smallest school in 3A and a lot of people didn’t give us props, so for us to be able to do this makes it so much more special. This means a lot.”
It’s the first regional title for MHS since 1999, and in earning the victory, MHS won its 19th game of the season, which is the most wins since 1996.
“We came in here with the goal of getting Mendota back to where it was,” fifth-year MHS coach Jan Thompson said. “Every single group that I’ve had has taken a hold of that and done the best they can, and every year it’s gotten a little bit better and a little bit better. It’s come to a head with these guys this year. They really believed.”
The Trojans showed that Friday.
Blumhorst scored the game’s first three points, and Mendota’s James Carroll made two free throws just 1:56 into the game to give the Trojans a lead they never surrendered.
Despite multiple second-half runs by L-P, the Trojans never faltered or saw their lead drop below six points in the fourth quarter.
“It’s amazing, and you really can’t explain this feeling,” said Carroll, who scored a game-high 22 points, including going 12-for-13 from the foul line.
After L-P shot 51 percent in Wednesday’s blowout win over Ottawa, the Cavaliers struggled to shoot Friday.
L-P finished 19-for-49 (38.8 percent) and were 9-for-28 (32.1 percent) beyond the 3-point line.
By contrast, MHS shot 22-for-48 (45.8 percent) from the floor and went 18-for-21 from the free throw line.
L-P senior Jens Soderholm had a team-high 18 points and six rebounds, while senior Jon VonBehren added 13 points and six rebounds.
Cavs junior Noah Lamboley — the team’s second-leading scorer — finished with just three points and one rebound.
“Their defensive pressure was excellent,” L-P coach Jim Cherveny said. “We had a hard time getting open looks and clean looks. Give a lot of credit to Mendota because they definitely deserved that win and the regional championship. They played hard for three straight games.”
While Mendota never trailed, L-P had its best rally in the third quarter.
The Trojans built a 14-point lead just 15 seconds into the third quarter and led 42-29 with 5:39 left in the third before the Cavs came alive.
L-P closed the quarter on a 12-5 run and trailed 47-41 after three quarters.
The Cavs hung around in the fourth quarter and were down by six with 5:07 to play, but back-to-back baskets by Blumhorst and Carroll pushed the lead back to 10 with 3:54 to go and sent MHS on its way.
The Trojans went 8-for-8 from the foul line in the game’s final 1:46, and Cherveny pulled his non-seniors and conceded the game with 1:09 left.
“We knew they were going to make runs, and we just knew we had to be able to surprise them (at the start),” Blumhorst said. “We were able to get out to those leads so that their runs weren’t as devastating. They never got the lead, and that was huge.”
With the win, MHS (19-12) advances to Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. Class 3A Bradley University Sectional semifinal where the Trojans will play Limestone, which beat Washington 69-64 on Friday to win the East Peoria Regional.
“We definitely want to win the sectional and just keep going as far as we can,” Carroll said.
With the loss, L-P ends its season with a 19-10 record.
“This is the best group of kids that I’ve ever coached,” Cherveny said. “In my seven years coaching basketball, this is by far one of the most remarkable seasons. … It was a great group of kids to work with. As a second-year coach, they helped raise the bar just a little more of this program.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6939, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.