It was the game Peoria - particularly its leader, junior point guard Dewayne Russell - had waited a full year for. And it couldn't have started worse.
Defending champion Tempe McClintock and its star senior Cameron Forte made it look easy in the first quarter, streaking to a 17-7 lead on Peoria's floor.
The Panthers didn't panic, chipping away at the Chargers' advantage in the second and most of the third quarter. No. 2 seed Peoria (22-6) drew within three on Russell's free throws late in the third quarter - and then the rest of the contest turned into a Panthers highlight reel.
"We were just a little jittery at the beginning of the game because it's a big game," Russell said. "In the second half, coach (Michael) Serwa told us we need to settle down and make our shots."
Junior swingman Lawrence Pierce provided made the most spectacular and, as it turned out, the biggest shot. In the waning seconds of the third quarter, Pierce pushed the ball up court, pulled up from 35 feet and banked in a game-tying three.
"That was my first time for something like that. It was a moment," Pierce said.
The home crowd came unglued, and Peoria only gained strength from there. The Panthers controlled the final six minutes, limited Forte to four of his game-high 30 points in crunch time and knocked out McClintock (19-10) 61-53 in Friday night's 4A-I quarterfinal.
It was a night of redemption for Russell, senior guard Gerrick Burns and senior center Jason McAuley, who played key roles for a 2010 Peoria team that suffered a bitter quarterfinal defeat.
Last year's team had a rubber match with league rival Dysart with a final four spot on the line. The teams battled to a near standstill on Dysart's home court with the Demons grabbing a late three point lead.
Peoria had the ball for the last shot, and Russell launched a three from the top of the key. It looked in. It rimmed out.
"I had that last shot against Dysart, and I had to go to sleep with that," Russell said. "That's my driving thing, all year that's been nagging me. I'm a good player, but I need to become great to win. My teammates had my back the whole way, and they wanted to win it as much as I did."
Peoria was ranked most of the season, and this group will go down as one of the school's best. But the second-round game loomed all year, and the pressure only intensified once McClintock became the opponent.
At first, the moment seemed too big. Forte picked up 10 points and five rebounds in the first quarter, while Peoria struggled to score against length and lateral quickness of the other four Chargers.
Russell and Pierce picked it up in the second quarter, combining for 20 of Peoria's 22 points at halftime. Senior guard Tre Colter took some of the load off Forte, scoring six points in the second quarter, and finishing his burst with a bank shot to start the third.
"I'm fortunate to see (Dewayne's) maturity of the last three years. You can talk about adjustments, and he can do it immediately.," Serwa said.
Forte missed a free throw that would have put McClintock up 12 at the 6:18 mark of the third. Pierce scored, grabbed an offensive rebound on the next trip and drew an intentional foul on Forte. This added to a second-quarter technical Forte received for hanging on the rim after a breakaway dunk.
Forte scored his team's next eight points, but Peoria tightened the gap with three-point plays by junior forward Goch Ajak and Russell.
"(Forte) is a load. He's a tremendous basketball player," Serwa said. "He's great and I wouldn't even say that he's their team. They've got some other kids that played well. Forte is smooth. He's going to be great on the next level."
Two of the state's top scorers took over in the third quarter, with Forte putting up 10 points and Russell scoring nine. Each star also picked up his fourth foul late in the quarter, forcing both teams to scramble on defense.
As Russell sat, Ajak gave the Panthers their first lead with an offensive rebound and a follow. Senior guard Daniel Godley tied it, but Pierce responded with a pull-up jumper from the foul line.
"I noticed that when I would dribble, they would slide over. So big-time Lawrence Pierce decided, 'It's my time to shine,'" Russell said. "As good as he is on defense, he's that good on offense. People just don't recognize it. It was big for him step up."
Pierce scored again, and Ajak stole a pass down low dribbled the length of the court and was fouled. He hit both free throws to put Peoria up 51-45 with 4:54 on the clock.
Forte and Pierce traded baskets. The Chargers stole a pass and worked the ball to senior forward Tavon Watson for a layup. Forte posted up and used the glass to draw within two at the 1:45 mark.
Russell had a chance for another three-point play but missed the free throw. Colter scored with 1:07 left. But McClintock could not match the Panthers' finishing kick.
"In practice, we go super-hard against each other. So when we get to a game, it's fun," Pierce said. "I go against (Russell) every single day in practice."
Russell made two free throws, Peoria picked off another bad pass and Pierce sunk his free throws to ice it.
Ajak provided the exclamation point with a baseline drive and dunk at the 10 second mark. He finished with 11 points to complement Russell's team-high 26.
But the all-around star of the night was Pierce, who guarded Forte all night, scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
"Lawrence Pierce is the best defender in the state in my opinion, because he can defend in the post, he can defend on the perimeter," Serwa said. "It was just a matter of time until he could beat up Forte a little bit, to the point that he was in his head. I think it happened in the second quarter when (Forte) got the technical. I think that played a factor in taking him out of his game."
Peoria fans celebrated the breakthrough win and will look forward to a hard-earned five-mile trip to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale.
There, the Panthers have a chance to avenge their only two losses in 2011. First up is No. 3 seed Scottsdale Saguaro at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The Sabercats earned their spot with a 69-44 thrashing of Tucson Sabino Friday night.
Saguaro's fleet of shooters thrived against Peoria's zone in a 66-50 win Feb. 8. But there's one major caveat. Russell sat out that game after being ejected from the previous contest.
"One of the things that we took away is that we have to prepare for how well they execute on offense. They distribute the ball. They don't just rely on one of two guys," Serwa said. "Dewayne is another great defender, and I think with his defense, we'll have a better representation this time."
Win that, and Peoria could be looking at the biggest rubber match of all. No. 1 seed Kellis plays No. 5 Nogales in the other semifinal. The Cougars are Peoria's other major rival and the teams split their first two games.
"It started back in April when we talked about how we want a team full of leaders. And that's exactly what we have is character guys. That's why we're in the position we are now," Serwa said.