Kaneland held Rockford East's 6-foot-6 senior stalwart Steven McNease in check for three quarters.
However, the fourth quarter was an entirely different story.
With Tuesday's Sycamore Class 3A sectional semifinal knotted at 35-35 heading into the final period, McNease exploded for 21 of his game-high 26 points, scoring from all areas on the floor, as the E-Rabs pulled away for a hard-fought 66-54 victory.
Despite foul trouble, senior Marcel Neil finished with 14 points to lead the Knights (17-11) while sophomore Thomas Williams tallied 9 of his 13 points in the second half.
"(McNease) is a big-time player and he stepped up in the fourth quarter," credited Kaneland coach Brian Johnson. "He can hit from the outside - you can't sag off on him - and he's one of the best offensive rebounders I've seen in a long time."
"It's hard to get mad because we lost to a good team. Our boys made it a match and they had to fight to get the win."
"I had a bad first half, so in order for us to win I had to come out strong," said McNease, who also grabbed 12 rebounds.
Kaneland got off to its traditional slow start and tallied just 5 points in a ragged opening quarter that included 6 turnovers and a 2-for-15 shooting effort from the field.
Rockford East (19-10) appeared to be on the verge of scoring an early knockout, taking a commanding 24-10 lead with 4:10 left in the first half on the heels of a 9-0 run .
"We were all jittery at the start," Neil said. "It was a big game with a great crowd. Things just got a little too rushed and we settled for bad shots."
On cue, the Knights responded with a 13-2 outburst to close out the first half. Neil scored 7 straight Kaneland points, including a 3-pointer, to ignite the rally, while Dan Miller and Drew David added baskets in the final minute.
The surge continued as Neil scored a on perfect lob pass inside from David and drained a 15-foot baseline jumper to give the Knights their first lead of the game at 27-26.
"We always get a run in, so I knew it was going to happen," Neil said.
The E-Rabs tallied 7 straight points, but Kaneland forged back in front at 35-33 with an 8-0 spurt. Matt Limbrunner cashed in on a putback and layup inside while Williams hit a jumper and finished a strong drive in the lane.
Neil picked up his fourth foul with 57 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Knights weathered the storm and gained their last lead at 45-44 with 4:47 left on a Limbrunner layup after breaking the E-Rabs full-court press.
McNease took matters into his own hands, completing a conventional 3-point play off an offensive rebound.
He followed with a momentum changing 25-foot 3-pointer to give the E-Rabs the lead for good at 50-47.
"I was not passing," McNease said. "When I get in the groove I keep going."
"Steven's so emotional and he was frustrated that he wasn't getting the ball in the first half," said Rockford East coach Roy Sackmaster. "He came out with a different attitude in the second half and just played his game."
McNease extended the advantage to 56-49 with a coast-to-coast steal and hoop then grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds and connected on 7 of 8 free throws in the final minutes to seal the win.
"We knew with our athleticism we could just hang around the basket and get put backs," Sackmaster said, as his squad won for the 11th time in 13 games.
David did an excellent job handling the E-Rabs constant pressure, finishing with 9 points and several impressive assists. Tyler Heinle added 7 points off the bench.
"We were down big here and some teams would say we're not going to get back in the game, but these boys worked hard and that's the legacy they're leaving," Johnson said.
Rockford East held an unofficial 34-29 edge on the boards with Darshawn Pumphrey-King and Jovan Henderson contributing 12 points each.
The E-Rabs advanced to face the winner of tonight's Aurora Central Catholic-Johnsburg contest in Friday's sectional final.