GILMAN — Jack McMillan did all he could. After he and his Iroquois West boys basketball teammates found themselves down by 10 points in the fourth quarter of their regular season finale against Watseka, the four-year varsity guard exploded for 18 points in the second half and helped cut the Raiders’ deficit to as close as 4 points.
“With McMillan and the way he can create, you just knew he was gonna take over, and he did,” said Warriors coach Chad Cluver. “It’s just like he’s been doing every time for what seems like has been six years now.”
But the Warriors weren’t ready to lose their perfect record in Sangamon Valley Conference play in the last week of the regular season. Just when it looked as though the Raiders were poised to take their first lead since the first quarter, Jameson Cluver hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to preserve what ended up a 65-49 Watseka victory Tuesday night.
“I felt really comfortable where we stood,” Jameson Cluver said of the moments after his 3-pointers, the second of which came with just more than five minutes to play. “All of our games have been extremely close, so I know in the fourth quarter that’s where our friendships come together; we hone back in on the game plan and put it together.”
The Warriors improved to 11-1 on the season and 4-0 in the Sangamon Valley Conference, meaning their matchup with Paxton-Buckley-Loda, which is 4-1 in the conference, will determine the regular season SVC champion in the conference’s final season.
Chad Cluver compared the atmosphere of every conference game the Warriors have had to a regional atmosphere, something teams won’t have a chance to partake in this season. Nonetheless, the Warriors have been enjoying every bit of what has become a magical season.
“The conference has been so fun, especially in the last year [of it],” Chad Cluver said. “It’s been so close night in and night out; it’s been fun to coach, and the kids are having a lot of fun playing in it.
“We’re starting to love it and care about each other, doing the little things,” he added. “It’s pretty fun, and we’re playing at a high level.”
Without a postseason tournament, conference battles have become the top priority for teams across the state. With the Warriors now a game away from being the last regular season champions of the SVC before it dismantles, their coach said they haven’t even given thought to the fact their season isn’t what it would be in a year without COVID-19.
“We haven’t talked once about what we don’t have — just what we do have, and that’s each other right now,” Chad Cluver said. “We’ve handled the adversity before; the kids handle it better than the adults anyway, so let’s just enjoy it and give it everything we’ve got.”
And the Warriors got everything the Raiders had Tuesday. Ty Pankey shouldered more offensive load, especially early, as Ryan Tilstra was slowed with an ankle injury. Pankey hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first that sparked the Raiders offense and kept them within striking distance before McMillan put the team on his back.
The Raiders, who fell to 7-3 and bowed out of the SVC race at 3-2 in the conference, have ultimate trust in their senior guard to put on displays as he did Tuesday, something coach Zach Monk surely will miss once the season ends.
“He wants to win just like everyone else, and there were stretches where he was looking for chances to take the game over, which he can definitely do,” Monk said. “He was just trying to give us the best opportunity to win tonight.”
Jordan Schroeder hit six clutch free throws down the stretch and led a balanced Watseka offense with 15 points to go along with two rebounds and two assists. Hunter Meyer had 11 points off the bench. Jameson Cluver had 11 points, two boards and three assists.
McMillan’s 18 points in the second half followed a scoreless first half. He also had three rebounds, three assists and four steals. Pankey had 9 points and five rebounds. Cannon Leonard went for 9 points, eight rebounds and a block, and Peyton Rhodes added 6 points and three dimes.
The Warriors host Paxton-Buckley-Loda for the rights to sole ownership of the conference regular season crown at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Raiders will be back in action at next week’s SVC Shootout.