ROCK ISLAND — The state's No. 8-ranked Normal West High School basketball team saw an 18-point lead shrink to eight with six minutes left, but hung on for a 51-38 victory over East Moline in a Class 4A Rock Island Regional semifinal on Tuesday.
Following 10-0 run by the Panthers, Normal West standout Francis Okoro got free in the lane and pounded home a two-hand slam to make the lead 10 points. The Wildcats (22-7) did not make another basket the rest of the way, salting the win away with 10 free throws down the stretch.
"We won," Normal West coach Brian Cupples said. "I don't think we played particularly well and some of that is because (East Moline) was very good on defense. The key was we got the lead and were able to hold onto it."
Normal West did that in large part with their swarming 2-3 zone defense that took away the East Moline 3-point shooters and funneled the Panthers (13-15) to shoot over the 6-foot-9 Okoro.
East Moline turned the ball over 10 times in the opening half, got just six 3-pointers off and had three of Okoro's five blocks against them.
"They have a luxury of having a (6-9) guy sitting the middle of the paint," said East Moline coach Ran Webber. "That allows them to straddle the 3-point line with their other four guys. Okoro makes you think every time you get the ball in the soft spot in the lane.
"I thought we did a better job in there in the second half. Jean-Luc (Wilson, nine points, nine rebounds, four assists and four steals) just willed his way in there."
The Wildcats had the idea of not letting East Moline's jump shooters (Delaney Little, Shamar Grant and Kyle Ellison) get open shots.
"We can do a lot of things with our 2-3 zone," Cupples said. "This was a case where we wanted to protect the (3-point) line. We wanted to push them off and make them pass the ball inside and let Francis defend."
East Moline still had a chance, down 41-32 midway through the final quarter. They forced three straight empty possessions for West, but were unable to score and get it to a six- or seven-point game.
"This has been our thing all season," Webber said. "We make the defensive plays, but the big shot just won't go in for us."
Little led the Panthers with 12 points.
Okoro finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Nate Duckworth added 10 points.
The Wildcats will play in Friday's title game against the winner of tonight's semifinal between Rock Island and Bloomington.