NORMAL – As a basketball player for El Paso Gridley High School, Abe Zeller admitted, the only time he was on a team that reached the finals was when he was in junior high. He and his EPGHS teammates never got to Illinois High School Association Boys’ basketball’s State Tournament.

Tuesday night, as head coach for Roanoke-Benson High School, that particular personal stat changed for Zeller, and for his players as a team, as the Rockets their IHSA Super-Sectional contest, defeating the Titans of Chicago Fenger High School, 45-43. The win increased Roanoke-Benson’s record under Zeller to 36-1 for the season. The win allowed the Rockets to advance to play in an IHSA Class 1A Semi-final against Goreville Friday. That game will tip off in Peoria Civic Center’s Carver Arena, starting at 1p.m.

“Fenger is a great team and for us to get this win on this court, and make history for Roanoke-Benson to make it to the final four is really special for these guys,” Zeller told reporters who clustered close to be able to hear him while R-BHS fans and students cheered and celebrated the experience on Doug Collins Court at Redbird Arena on Illinois State University’s campus.

Trailing 32-27 as the fourth quarter opened, two free throws from R-BHS senior forward Trent Weldon helped the Rockets pull within three, 32-29 and a deuce from Weldon helped narrow Fenger’s lead to one, 32-31. A deuce and free throw after being fouled by Fenger senior guard Donovan Taylor helped the Titans push their lead back to four, 35-31, with 7:06 left. But from there, Roanoke-Benson scored six unanswered points – a basket from junior center Luke Braman followed by a deuce and two free throws from senior guard Jack Weber. Weber took the shots having been fouled by Fenger senior forward Alex Dusley, and those points put the Rockets in front, 37-35, prompting Fenger head coach Stephan Collum to call for time.

Following the timeout, Chicago Fenger (20-15) went back in front, 39-37 with four minutes left, first due to two free throws from Taylor followed by a bucket from senior forward Jonta Lewis. That scoring surge prompted Zeller to call time with 3:55 remaining. Coming out of that timeout, Braman sank two free throws after being fouled by Taylor, tying the game at 39-all.

Fenger’s Lewis responded with a basket, pushing the Titans forward, 41-39 with 2:50 remaining. But a foul committed by Taylor sent Weber to the free throw line with 90 seconds left where he hit just 1-of-2, narrowing Fenger’s lead to one, 41-40.

A missed free throw from Lewis kept Fenger from increasing its lead, and with 42 seconds left, Weldon’s next basket put Roanoke-Benson up by one, 42-41. But R-BHS’ Weber fouled Fenger guard Willis Baker, sending him to the line where his two free throws put the Titans up, 43-42, with 21 seconds left.

But Fenger senior center Adreon Jefferson fouling Weber and sending him to the charity stripe one last time for Roanoke-Benson with six seconds left, where he made both shots with 7.4 seconds left, resulted in the final score. With six seconds remaining, Fenger took a time out, coming out of which all they could produce was a missed layup and a rebound as the final buzzer sounded.

Trailed After One Quarter, Tied At Half, And Trailed After Three Quarters: Roanoke-Benson trailed 13-11 at the end of the first quarter, managing to stay that close as a result of pair of baskets from Weber and a trio of baskets from Braman. Weber, Braman, and Weldon managed to give the Rockets a brief 21-19 lead with 52 seconds left in the second quarter only to see a basket by Fenger junior guard Kejuan Currie close out the quarter with a deuce to tie the game at 21-all, the score that started the second half. Two deuces by Currie, one by Jefferson, and a trey Taylor helped Fenger outpace Roanoke-Benson in the third quarter.

Braman led in double figures for Roanoke-Benson with 13 points. No Fenger players found double-digit points but Currie came closest, leading his team’s scoring with 9 points.

“These guys have found ways to win all year,” said Zeller, in crediting his players. “Defensively, to hold Fenger to 43 points on this court, we knew we would have to protect the paint.”

“Getting Here Is Unbelievable”: Zeller said for him to be where he was Tuesday night “is unbelievable.” He has family members who are coaches including at Eureka High School. “Basketball has a rich tradition for my family,” he explained, pointing out his uncle, Pete Meiss, was his mentor as he was learning about the profession.

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