DECATUR — Keon Jones walked out of the locker room with the hood on his MacArthur basketball jacket pulled over his head.
He spoke quietly and at times put his hand over his face. He was frustrated. Jones felt like he could have done more, but in reality, he and MacArthur did just enough in an 80-78 win over Eisenhower Tuesday night to sweep the regular-season series. The two teams will meet on Monday in the Class 3A Rantoul Regional quarterfinals.
His 20-point, 10-rebound effort wasn't what bothered him. Jones, who played for Eisenhower last season, scored in the paint and from behind the 3-point line. But he was 4-of-10 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter to let Eisenhower hang around just long enough to give the Panthers the last shot of the game. Lunden Cook's deep 3-pointer bounced off the back of the rim as time expired to allow MacArthur to sneak out of the gym with a victory.
"Those free throws almost cost us the game," Jones said. "Luckily he missed that last shot."
Jones has been the fuel in the engine of the Generals (15-13, 10-7) all season long. When the game is on the line, coach Ron Ingram wants the ball in Jones' hands. Jones has had a way of delivering in key moments this season. Ingram knows Jones logged a lot of minutes in a frantic up-tempo game. Jones attributes the misses to his follow through. Either way, he'll be in the gym on Wednesday shooting free throws for what he estimates will be at least an hour, but he'll do so with a win against his former team under his belt.
"It feels good to get any win," Jones said, "not just against those guys. It feels good to come back in here and get a win."
After fouling out with 50 seconds left in the game, Kaeden Lawary sat on the bench a little worried for Jones at the free-throw line, but never doubted the Jones would make a play when he needed.
"I figured he'd make one of them," Lawary said. "I was scared for him, but he's had the ball all season, so I figured he would do something with it."
Make no mistake, Ingram still has faith in Jones in crunch time. The Generals have gone as Jones has gone, and that's to a winning record.
"Like I told him in the locker room, 'He's still our guy. Tomorrow, if it came down to it, we're going to give the ball to you still at the end of the basketball game. We want you shooting those free throws,'" Ingram said. "He's a better free throw shooter than that, he really is."
Jones wasn't alone to help the Generals hang on for a win. Skyllar Walker scored a team-high 21 points and Lawary took advantage of his height mismatch to score 16 points and pull down 13 rebounds. MacArthur needed every last point and every one of its 44 rebounds, including two key ones from AJ Lawson in the final 15 seconds, to ward off the Panthers (9-19, 5-11) and their high-pressure defense.
"We knew it would be a dog fight," Lawary said. "The last time we played them they were real scrappy. Their defense is really tough. We've just got to take care of the ball."
Lawary, like Jones, feels like he could have had more points. He missed a few close shots and tip ins, but he was a force on the glass. The game was exactly what he expected after MacArthur held off Eisenhower in the first meeting this season.
Eisenhower forced 13 second-half turnovers and got out in transition for layups. There were 10 lead changes in the second half. Cameron Rowe paced Eisenhower all game, slashing and cutting through the lane with reckless abandon on the way to a game-high 26-point effort. R.J. Walker found his shooting stroke in the second half, finishing with 20 points and Brylan Phillips had 12 points.
"They just found a little more energy and shifted gears," Eisenhower coach Rodney Walker said of his team's frantic second half. "When we stick to our principals and do what we're supposed to do, we're a tough team. We just got beat on second and third chances. They're a little bigger than us. We tried to box out, but a couple of them we couldn't get. That was all the defensive effort. We've got great principles when we stick to them. We boxed out the best we could. They're just a little longer and got some extra ones over us."
There was no special secret to how MacArthur closed out the game. In fact, Ingram wasn't particularly thrilled with that aspect of the game.
"We didn't play good basketball," Ingram said. "We didn't close the game out well at all. Eisenhower did what they had to do. They got the last shot. We missed free throws, we missed about 20 layups under the basket. We didn't do anything special to close that game out."
Had Jones reacted differently to his night, Ingram might have as well. Instead, Jones understanding that the game was too close for comfort was actually comforting for Ingram. That's the response he wants to see out of the heartbeat of his team.
"If he walked out of here joking and laughing about the game we played and missing free throws and turning the ball over, then I would feel a certain way," Ingram said. "But him being mad, that's really a high point of the basketball game."