PEKIN — Only upstart Normal West High School stood between state-ranked Rock Island and a fourth straight girls' regional basketball championship Friday night.
Yet despite a gritty effort from the outmanned Wildcats, the Rocks continued to roll steadily along the tourney trail, registering a 60-35 triumph in the Class 4A Pekin Regional at Dawson Hawkins Gym.
Junior sensation Bre Beal racked up 27 points and 14 rebounds, and backcourt running mate Chrislyn Carr chipped in 18 points as Rock Island (23-7), ranked fourth in the latest Associated Press poll, advanced to Monday's Champaign Centennial Sectional against Bradley-Bourbonnais (23-7). Host Bourbonnais advanced with a 67-52 victory over Moline on Thursday night.
Normal West, a No. 6 sectional seed, closed 18-10 after advancing to the title round by knocking off host Pekin and fourth-seeded Peoria High earlier in the week.
"I'm so proud of these kids, particularly our seniors,'' noted third-year Normal West coach Corey Ostling, who loses only guard Arie Sims and post player Maggie Rena to graduation. "They've helped rebuild this team from scratch and change the culture in this program. They won as many games this year as nearly the last three years combined.''
Even so, Rock Island was operating on a different plateau.
Fresh from a 39-point semifinal romp over Bloomington, the Rocks stepped on the gas in the second quarter, breaking open a 15-14 contest by scoring 28 of the game's next 31 points to make it 43-17 before Rosh Webb's basket broke West's drought with 3:31 to go in the third quarter.
It was during the 17-3 run to close the second quarter that West played without Rena (poke in the eye) and regional scoring leader Ayanna Gibbs (sprained ankle) for long stretches.
"We were down our two bigs and that just kind of threw the rhythm off on our substitution patterns,'' Ostling admitted. "No excuses, though. They (Rock Island) are an outstanding team and (Beal) is just lights out the way she finishes.''
The 6-foot-1 Beal, averaging better than 26 points in Rock Island's last eight games, scored the first 10 points of the third quarter as the Western Big 6 champs padded a 32-17 halftime lead. Normal West never got closer than 19 after that.
"I thought we were very patient but as the same time very aggressive, and that's a fine line for a high school team,'' Rock Island coach Thad Hoover said. "We know we're going to see all kinds of defenses thrown at us in the state tournament and we have to be prepared for anything.''
Rock Island shot 44.6 percent (25 of 56) and held a 37-24 rebounding cushion, with 6-5 sophomore Anne Awour adding nine boards to Beal's team-leading total. Normal West shot only 25.4 percent (13 of 51), missing its first six shots of the third quarter and finishing the second half 7-of-30.
"Their size gave us fits,'' Ostling said. "We didn't get a lot of good looks.''
"I thought we did a nice job defensively,'' Hoover said, "and I thought even though we were careless at times, our offense was effective.''
Despite her first-half injury, Gibbs came back and led West with 13 points. Junior guard Tresoir Newson added nine points and a team-high seven rebounds. Sophomore guard Olivia Demosthenes contributed six points as well.