Although Aurora Central Catholic trailed Rockford East by a relatively small 24-20 margin at halftime of Friday night's Class 3A Sycamore sectional final, the Chargers sensed a golden opportunity had slipped away.
The E-Rabs, determined to avenge last year's 85-82 sectional final loss, clamped down defensively in the second half and unleashed their potent transition game.
Five-foot-8 senior guard Darshawn Pumphrey-King and 6-foot-6 senior Steven McNease combined for 33 second half points to help Rockford East claim a 63-52 decision in front of a raucous capacity crowd.
The E-Rabs (20-11) advanced to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1978, where they will face Peoria Central (25-3) Monday night in the NIU supersectional at 6 p.m.
"We got a lot of looks that we really wanted in the first half and we have to make them. I thought we should have been ahead by probably six to eight points," said Chargers coach Nate Drye.
Aurora Central connected on just 8-of-23 attempts from the field in the opening half and committed 9 turnovers.
"We needed to make our bunnies and easy shots," added Chargers senior Joey McEachern, who paced the Chargers with 16 points.
Aurora Central (12-18) received a stellar 12-point effort from junior guard Zach Flint while senior Robert DeMyers anchored the middle defensively and finished with 8 points and 15 rebounds. Paul Kaminski added 7 points and 5 rebounds off the bench.
The Chargers got off to a solid start, leading 15-14 at the end of the first quarter on the heels of a 9-1 run that included a pair of baskets from Flint and a 3-point play from Phil Schuetz.
However, they only generated two field goals and five points in a second quarter struggle that ended with McNease grabbing a loose ball rebound and hitting a 15-foot baseline jumper at the buzzer.
"A lot of our shots were long, I think maybe we were a little too amped on our shots. The moment was pretty big." Drye said.
Aurora Central held Rockford East in check for the most part in the first half with its active 2-3 defense, but the E-Rabs showed better patience as the game wore on.
McNease opened the third quarter with a 15-foot jumper, Devion Smith completed a strong baseline drive for a basket, and McNease dished out a nifty assist to Pumphrey-King.
After draining another 17-footer, McNease ignited the E-Rab faithful with a steal and earth-shaking slam dunk for a 34-24 advantage with 2:40 left in the quarter.
"When they got their 10-point lead on us, that's when it hurt," McEachern said. "You can't play from that far behind."
"In about 25 of the 30 games we've played, we faced exclusively zone defenses," said Rockford East coach Roy Sackmaster. "We're at the point now where we're very comfortable against them."
The Chargers caught a break when Rockford East was called for a technical foul after McEachern's long made jumper and Anthony Andujar hit both free throws.
Kaminski added a transition basket on a nice feed from Andujar to narrow the gap to 34-30 with 1:27 left, but McNease answered with a another crucial 3-pointer to end the quarter.
"(McNease) is a ton. He makes some shots with a high degree of difficulty that you can't do much about," Drye said.
"I don't remember him being too much of a problem on the offensive side, it was more on our defensive side where he gave us some problems," DeMyers said.
Aurora Central remained within 42-37 with 4:56 left, but Pumphrey-King pulled down a pair of offensive rebounds and scored 6 points while McNease added a transition layup to push the lead back to 50-39 at the 3:19 mark.
Aurora Central never got closer than 9 points as Pumphrey-King finished with 17 points in the fourth quarter.
"They were on a mission," Sackmaster said.
"Last year we played with that not to lose mentality and we just kept telling them over and over to keep attacking and be aggressive."