It's tough to beat a good team with a one-man offense. It's doubly difficult when that one man fouls out with 5:27 left in the game.
Peoria (13-5, 4-1 West Valley Region) junior point guard Dewayne Russell had 28 of his team's 41 points when he picked up his fifth foul on a hand check in the post against Kellis junior forward Bikonzi Moise. The Panthers trailed by two at the time, and battled back to tie twice.
But the Peoria offense stagnated without its floor general and Kellis (12-3, 4-2) made enough of its free throws down the stretch to break through with a 55-53 win on Peoria's floor.
"Tonight we played a little better (offensively). Defensively, we stepped up and had some critical stops" Kellis coach Curtis Green said.
Junior guard Lawrence Pierce became the focal point of Peoria's attack with Russell on the bench. His layup tied the game at 43, and the next time down court he drew a shooting foul. Pierce made one of two free throws, and junior forward Goch Ajak grabbed one of his 12 rebounds. Ajak was fouled and made one of his free throws to square it at 45.
Kellis junior guard Demetrius Balark responded with a mid-range jumper, giving the Cougars a lead they would not relinquish. Balark led his team with 14 points, and while that number doesn't jump off the page, it was when and how he got those points that pleased Green.
"We had talked to him. He just needed to settle down. I think he was just trying to do too much," Green said. "We told him to let the game come to him."
The Cougars looked to be in command after forcing a five-second call and getting two free throws from junior guard Wayman Payne with 1:46 remaining. But senior guard Ernesto Encinas, who had just checked in for the first time, drilled a three from the corner to cut Peoria's deficit to one.
"When Dewayne fouled out, we didn't fold. It could have easily went downhill," Peoria coach Michael Serwa said. "If Lawrence can play with that aggressive nature that he did when Dewayne fouled out, that's helps us all around."
Then Kellis center Kenny Martin finished it, picking off the pass and dribbling down court for a dunk attempt. Ajak fouled him to stop the dunk, but Martin calmly sunk both free throws.
The late play was another example of the lanky 6-9 junior's versatility. He finished the night with his usual big totals in rebounds (nine) and blocks (seven). But the big man's two three-point shots helped stretch Peoria's defense just enough.
"He hit those two big threes. That really changed the pace for us," Green said. "It's tough for teams to match up to him."
Much like these rivals' earlier matchup, a 52-39 Peoria win at Kellis Dec. 7, the game was played at the Panthers' preferred half-court pace. Green said his squad's execution of offensive sets was just good enough this time, with less rushed shots than the first game.
On the other bench, Serwa's early-season fear of Peoria's other players looking to Russell and Pierce to carry them came through. While Russell's first-half numbers, 17 points and one assist, would suggest a point guard looking for his own shot too much, Serwa said it was more a case of his teammates not getting into positions to score.
"We work really hard in practice on our half-court execution, that's pretty much all we've been doing lately," Serwa said. "We just talked about it now. It's time for the other guys to step up and play when it's needed. It's the little things we've got to shore up."
Russell's barrage allowed the Panthers to enter the break trailing 26-25. Things started to go south when he picked up his third foul early in the third quarter, but Russell scored seven points, including a conventional three-point play, to keep Peoria within three.
Balark scored to give Kellis a 43-39 lead with 6:08 left. As Peoria inbounded the ball, senior guard Francisco Rangel denied Russell the ball with chest-to-chest defense.
The officials called Russell for a push off - his fourth foul. Rangel celebrated a bit too much and was hit with a technical.
Russell hit the ensuing free throws, but those would be his last points Friday. He fouled out less than a minute later.
Pierce was the only other Panther in double figures, and six of his 10 points came after Russell left. In contrast, four of Kellis starters scored as much, with Moise and Payne (10 points each) joining Balark and Martin.
The win keeps Kellis in what's shaping up as a three-team West Valley Region race. The Cougars are third at 4-2, a half-game behind Peoria. Results of Avondale Agua Fria's game Friday night were not available, but the Owls entered at 11-5 and 4-0 in the West Valley.
"We definitely had to have tonight to stay in the hunt," Green said. "Peoria's a tough team and they still have to play Agua Fria twice, so that will be an interesting matchup."
Peoria still plays Agua Fria twice, with the first meeting Jan. 20 at Peoria. But Serwa's not looking too far ahead in a deep region where the bottom four (Sunrise Mountain, Copper Canyon, Dysart and Bradshaw Mountain) are good enough to bite the big boys.
"It would have been nice to knock off Kellis and then we have Agua Fria twice," Serwa said. "But we can't overlook anybody."