DeKALB - Fred Van Vleet and his Rockford Auburn teammates never felt so gigantic.
Never mind that Van Vleet, his teammate LaMark Foote and Knights coach Bryan Ott were sitting at an elevated table inside Northern Illinois University's Convocation Center Tuesday night.
"I feel like I'm about 7-2," said the 6-foot Van Vleet, the velvety-smooth senior point guard and the all-time leading scorer in Rockford public school history.
Somehow, some way, despite standing significantly shorter than its opponent in the Class 4A NIU supersectional, Auburn, and particularly Van Vleet, rose to the occasion time and time against Warren's Goliaths.
The Wichita State-bound Van Vleet scored 18 of his game-high 27 points in the second half, as Auburn pulled out a 49-43 win before a large crowd that consisted mainly of Knights fans, as evident by their roar as the outcome became all but official in the final minute.
Auburn didn't start a player taller than 6 feet but outrebounded Warren, which had four starters 6-4 and taller, 36-33 and also helped force 19 turnovers.
"You're just not going to win that way," Warren coach Chuck Ramsey said. "It just seemed like we couldn't sustain things."
"You talk about the lack of size we got, and the size they got," Van Vleet said. "Just to go out there and punch them in the mouth and just take it from them, I'm going to remember this forever."
While Auburn improved to 31-2 and for the first time since 1975 earned a berth downstate, where the Knights will play Proviso East in Friday's 6:30 p.m. state semifinal at Peoria's Civic Center, defending state runner-up Warren finished 26-4.
The game marked the final one at Warren for Ramsey, who steps down after 19 seasons as head coach and 403 wins.
His Blue Devils enjoyed a 41-35 fourth-quarter lead and were up 43-40 with 3:05 left after Jameris Smith stole the ball and dribbled nearly the length of the court for a layup. But the Knights' 5-9 Elijah Smith grabbed an offensive rebound, was fouled by Nathan Boothe (his fifth) and sank 2 free throws with 2:04 to go.
When Van Vleet banked in a short jumper in transition with 1:27 left, Auburn had the lead for good. Warren never scored again, as the Knights closed the game with a 9-0 run.
"A lot of rebounds are not necessarily due to height," Ramsey said. "A lot of rebounds are due to quickness to the ball, below the rim. They just beat us to the ball. Defensively, we didn't box out as well as you need to."
Warren had three players score in double figures, led by the 6-9 Boothe's 14 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 5 blocks. Mitch Munda, who guarded and chased Van Vleet all night, had 13 points, and 6-8 Darius Paul had a double-double of 10 points and a game-best 11 rebounds in his final game as a Blue Devil.
"I was excited I got the opportunity (to guard Van Vleet)," Munda said. "I knew I had to step up. I really wanted to be an energy guy tonight and stop him as much as I could. He's a great player. I wish him the best of luck next year."
Auburn closed the first quarter with a 3-pointer by Van Vleet and then a Van Vleet steal and dish to a driving Smith for an 18-10 lead. Despite missing its first 12 shots from the floor in the second quarter, and not scoring until Van Vleet's steal set up Smith for a breakaway layup with 54 seconds left, the Knights took a 22-20 lead into halftime.
Van Vleet scored all 10 of Auburn's points, including two of his five 3-pointers, in the third. But Warren shot 6 of 12 in the quarter thanks to several high-percentage shots in the lane and took a 33-32 advantage into the fourth.
Van Vleet continued to take charge in the fourth. When he wasn't scoring, he was doing something else positive. He also finished with 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals, and shot 5 of 10 from beyond the arc.
"He has been an incredibly unselfish player through his career," said Ott, who has Lake County ties, as he coached seven years under Mike Kolze at Highland Park. "He has done a great job of getting other people involved and making them better than they are sometimes and making sure that everybody is happy. He has matured into the type of player that understands that as the best player on his team there are times that he has to take over. And there are moments. And he usually picks the right ones. That's what a great player does."
Another negative for Warren: 1 of 10 from 3-point range.
"We didn't settle on the court," Boothe summed. "We played a little out of control and we just didn't do what we usually do."
"They had a real difference-maker at guard," Ramsey said. "He controlled things."