FULTON, Ill. — The Fulton Steamers knew Riverdale was going to be tough, but they mustered a powerful second half to take the second regional game 47-32 at home on Wednesday night.
“We kind of let one against them slip away earlier this year and unfortunately that probably cost us a conference title, so we’ve been talking about that,” Fulton coach RJ Coffey said. “There was no way we were letting those dudes walk out of our gym with another W. We were focused, locked in, they knew exactly what they needed to do and executed our game plan perfectly.
“I couldn’t be more proud and those are the games that are fun.”
With less than a minute to go in the game, Kyle Schipper got the ball on the block putting it in with the added harm. He drained his free-throw — his fourth of the night — to complete the 3-point play and give Fulton the 47-32 lead.
Down on the other end, Tyler Bruggenwirth swatted the ball away to send the packed gymnasium into a frenzy and put the exclamation point on a regional semifinal game.
“It was awesome,” Schipper said. “It really summed up how our night went tonight. We played really well in the second half and that just shows what we did.”
The Rams weren’t to be taken for granted, though, with a 21-8 record this season.
The Steamers came out of the locker room after halftime with a small, two-point advantage. Kyle Schipper came out and hit a jumper to start off the offense, then Cody Sanderson dumped a pass to Tyler Bruggenwirth for another bucket down low.
Right after that Keegan Kloepping drew a foul and sank both to give Fulton the 24-16 advantage.
“We made some adjustments, but it was mostly just stay the course and execute better,” Coffey said. “We just wanted to tighten up the hole on the ball and stick with the defensive plan, which they did.”
Offensive rebounds and turnovers then became an issue. Riverdale put one in off an offensive rebound, and then grabbed four more offensive rebounds on the next possession, eventually drawing the foul.
“We did a lot of things well, but we didn’t particularly board as well as we would have liked in the second half,” Coffey said. “They were shooting some off-balance stuff that was coming off hard, but we still have to get the boards. They got a couple buckets off that, but we responded every time.”
Next time down, another offensive putback. Then Riverdale forced a turnover in the back court and Brett Murphy easily put it in. All of a sudden Fulton was only ahead 24-22.
They stepped up their game.
“They’re a good team so we knew they were going to make runs and we had to make one ourselves,” Schipper said. “We wanted to win this game, and that run at the end is what did it.”
Kloepping came down and drained a dagger three to extend it back to five, and then Sanderson drove the lane for the foul, sinking both free shots.
“I’ve been telling him he’s a shooter, knock them down,” Coffey said of Kloepping. Kloepping finished with eight points, draining two from beyond the arc. “He knocked a big one down.”
Bruggenwirth then found Jamison Osborn wide open on the block for an easy two points. Bruggenwirth came out in the fourth quarter with a reverse layup to give the Steamers the first double-digit lead of the game with the 33-22 advantage.
Free throws played a large role in the advantage Fulton built. The Steamers, who have struggled at the line this season, went 19-20 Wednesday night. The Rams on the other hand, went 0-6.
“We work on them a lot in practice now because we struggled before,” Schipper said. The Steamers lost in a tiebreaker at the Route 84 Tournament because of low free throw numbers. “I think we fixed it.”
With four minutes left to play, the Fulton student section broke into the victory chant for their Steamers.
Fulton handled themselves in the last minutes despite back court pressure and fouling from their opponent. Through the last eight minutes, they only turned the ball over twice.
“We’ve been through this before, we’ve played in a lot of tight games,” Schipper said. “We’re used to it by now so it’s easy to stay calm.”
The two teams—who split games during the regular season—were back and forth in the first half. Fulton jumped to a 9-2 lead to start the game, but Riverdale went on an 8-0 run to take the lead. Sanderson drew a foul on a 3-point shot and sank all three to give the Steamers the lead again. Neither team took a significant lead in the first 16 minutes.
“They’re a good team, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Coffey said. “They do a lot of good things. We said it’s not going to be easy, nothing worthwhile ever is. So, in order to get the W we’re going to have to work hard.”
Sanderson and Bruggenwirth were the scoring leaders for the Steamers, each putting up 12 points a piece. Bruggenwirth also pulled down 15 boards.
“He was cleaning the glass all night. He had lots of energy despite a tough matchup, and when we got it to him he went hard,” Coffey said of Bruggenwirth. “Defensively he was very good, he really played like an All-Stater.
“Cody was phenomenal again tonight. I’ll tell you what, the last month and a half he’s been nothing but a stud. He scores, he dishes, he boards.”
The Steamers go on to play in the regional final against Bureau Valley on Friday, also at Fulton High School. Bureau Valley is the No. 1 seed in the regional bracket and Fulton has not played them yet this season.