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Mar. 11—CHAMPAIGN — A distressing scene unfolded early in Friday afternoon's Class 4A state semifinal game between Benet and New Trier on Lou Henson Court.
With the Redwings attempting to run an offensive set, senior captain Brady Kunka awkwardly fell to the hardwood at State Farm Center. And he didn't immediately return to his feet, writhing on the ground while teammate Niko Abusara was whistled for an offensive foul.
Barely four minutes into his first IHSA boys' basketball state tournament game, Kunka's day was done. He limped off the floor with what Benet coach Gene Heidkamp later said was an ankle injury and never returned to action.
"It looked pretty significant. ... (Trainers) told us he would not be able to get back in the game," Heidkamp said. "We don't know what his status is."
Kunka wore a distraught expression on his face as he stood behind the Redwings' bench and was tended to. He eventually took a seat at the end of that bench, with his leg propped up on a separate chair and a small towel placed over his head.
"I'm going to get emotion on me, too," Heidkamp said. "Brady's been with me for three years now, and he's played his whole career for an opportunity like this. To have that happen (so early) is heartbreaking, but also these guys really rallied."
Indeed they did, with Benet defeating New Trier 64-49 while Kunka frequently applauded from his courtside position.
The forward who averages 13.3 points and 6.5 rebounds stood toward the end of the contest, aided by crutches, and garnered a light "we want Brady" chant from the nearby Redwings student section.
"That's our captain. That's our guy," senior Brayden Fagbemi said. "Seeing him go down, it's obviously the worst thing we could imagine."
Benet trailed 11-8 at the time of Kunka's departure. The Redwings (35-1) soon tied the game at 12 and only trailed New Trier (31-5) once the rest of the game.
A 17-7 Benet scoring edge in the second quarter ultimately took some of the sting out of Kunka's on-court absence.
Though obviously not all of it. Especially if he remains unavailable for Saturday's 7:15 p.m. 4A state championship game versus Moline (34-3).
"We made a commitment to one of our teammates who's been so important to us," Heidkamp said. "It provided them extra motivation to try and get this game, and to extend our season. I could feel it. And I know that was an extra motivation for me as well."
Plenty of IHSA boys' basketball fans saw athletes from Simeon, Metamora and St. Ignatius at last year's state tournament inside State Farm Center.
They didn't see players from East St. Louis.
But those in attendance Friday found out about the Flyers quickly, during a 3A state semifinal game.
Coach Mark Chambers' team concocted a 27-19 halftime lead against reigning 3A state runner-up Metamora. Keying the surge was senior Macaleab Rich, a Kansas State signee who scored 11 of his game-high 19 points in the first half.
But East St. Louis needed Rich's scoring to be more sustained after halftime, with no other Flyer netting more than eight points in an eventual 50-43 Redbirds victory.
"We did a better job on number zero. That man can play," Metamora coach Danny Grieves said of Rich. "We double-teamed him a little bit more every time he caught it."
East St. Louis shot just 6 of 20 from the field in the second half, tacking on four turnovers to the Redbirds' one turnover.
"We have to stay focused, one possession at a time," Chambers said. "We took a few bad shots, and then the turnovers. That pretty much sparked what they wanted to do."
Metamora (33-2) will see a familiar face in Saturday's 5:30 p.m. 3A state championship game. The Redbirds defeated Simeon by a 50-47 margin in last season's state semifinal round. The Wolverines (31-3) are aiming for their eighth state title and first since 2013.
"You can see it in their eyes when we saw them in the tunnel. It was kind of staredown going, 'That's right. We're back, fellas,'" Grieves said. "It's all fun. ... We're in it to win it, like we were last year."
Richard Barron arguably was St. Ignatius' star attraction entering its 3A state semifinal game versus Simeon. He's a George Mason signee who was averaging a team-high 16.1 points.
But Barron was quiet in the Wolfpack's 60-42 loss to the Wolverines (31-3), tallying just five points and making only 2 of 13 shots from the field.
Making a lot more noise, and ultimately drawing quite a few more glances, was Barron's sophomore teammate Phoenix Gill.
"We have the best sophomore in the state on our team right now," Barron said of the 6-foot-3 Gill.
Gill finished with a game-high 21 points, knocking down 6 of 8 shost from the field and another 8 of 10 attempts from the free-throw line.
All while his father, former Illini Kendall Gill, watched on from inside his former college basketball home.
"Honestly, I'm pretty mad. I felt like I could've done more to help win and really help to contribute and beat Simeon," Phoenix Gill said. "But it's special. It's a special moment, for sure."
Also special for coach Matt Monroe's Wolfpack was seeing senior forward Jackson Kotecki garner 16 minutes of playing time.
The Miami (Ohio) signee played in 27 of St. Ignatius' first 35 games this season but had been dealing with an ankle injury. He scored four points and grabbed two rebounds versus Simeon.
"Last week, around I want to say Thursday, I was moving around my ankle and I was like, 'Oh, it's still swollen but it's not hurting,'" Kotecki said. "I'm like, 'I'm going to work my (butt) off. I'm going to get back here and get back for this game.' ... I'm so glad I was able to come back, starting practice Tuesday, and able to play in this game."
Dennis Rueter knows what it's like to coach in a state championship game.
But not in quite the format that he and his Gibault players are going through this week at State Farm Center.
"Last time we were in Peoria, you play three games in about a 30-hour span. ... It just happened so quickly," Rueter said. "Here, you've got a little bit more time to bask a little bit."
Rueter guided Gibault to the 1999 Class A state runner-up trophy, which accounts for the most recent appearance by the Hawks in this state tournament.
Gibault (31-7) could hoist a championship trophy if it can beat Scales Mound (33-5) in Saturday's 11 a.m. 1A state championship game on Lou Henson Court.
"At my age, I'd probably just as soon get it over with and move on," said Rueter, who is in his 41st season as the Hawks' leader. "But I think it's going to be fun for the kids to be able to take at least a little time and kind of say, 'Hey, we won a semifinal game. We're in the championship.'"
There could be some residual effect on Gibault from its 70-46 win against Cornerstone on Thursday in a 1A state semifinal game. Maybe.
The Hawks don't seem to linger too long on past results.
When Gibault senior Kameron Hanvey was asked Thursday about the buzzer-beating three-pointer he hit in Monday's super-sectional against Illini Bluffs — a shot that cracked that night's "SportsCenter" as part of its top 10 plays — he shrugged off its effect on the win against Cornerstone.
"It was a really cool moment. ... But I feel like we kind of got off that high (Wednesday) at practice," Hanvey said. "We knew we had to move on. It was a cool moment, but it was short-lived."
East St. Louis staved off a late comeback attempt from St. Ignatius to clinch third place in Class 3A with a 50-48 victory.
Dainen Rucker was the hero in the clutch for the Flyers (26-9); the junior levied a block on a potential game-winning three-pointer from Sam Horenkamp as time expired for St. Ignatius (24-13).
Rich paced the Flyers' offense with a game-high 24 points while also adding 11 rebounds and three assists. He outdueled Gill, who poured in 19 points to go with two assists and a rebound.
The Flyers outscored the Wolfpack 19-9 in the third quarter and held on to win despite being outscored 14-11 in the final eight minutes.