HARTSBURG - Josh Conrady isn't afraid to admit his weakness.
"I'm not a very good free throw shooter, so I expected them to foul me," said the Hartsburg-Emden High School junior. "I knew it was coming."
But not even Conrady, his senior brother Curtis or any of their other teammates expected what came next in Friday night's Class A Hartsburg-Emden Regional championship game.
Josh Conrady sank four free throws in a nine-second span after Illini Central cut a 16-point deficit to two with 1:16 left. The Stags tacked on five more free throws and held on for a 62-51 victory for their third regional championship in school history.
"He said after the game, 'I don't think I've ever hit four straight free throws in my life,' " said Hartem coach Josh Nauman. "I could have done without the drama."
The second-seeded Stags, ranked No. 16 in the state, improved to 26-3. They advanced to Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. Fieldcrest Sectional semifinal at Minonk against top-seed and 14th-ranked Central Catholic (24-4).
"This was our goal. Anything after this we consider gravy," said Hartem senior Scott Ubbenga, who scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds. "We'll be able to go out looser than we were tonight."
The Stags were loose for two-and-a-half quarters. Two inside baskets by Dakin Bolen upped Hartem's lead to 44-28 midway through the third quarter before the Anthony Rivera show began.
Rivera, a junior guard, put fifth-seeded Illini Central (20-10) on his back and nearly carried the Cougars to the upset over their Tomahawk Conference rivals. Rivera scored 20 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, including 11 of the Cougars' first 13 in the fourth quarter. He drove inside for his final basket to get Illini Central within 53-51 with 1:55 left.
"I was in awe myself watching him," said Illini Central coach John Giesler of Rivera, whose first six baskets were 3-pointers. "That was Jordan-esque almost. It was amazing."
Giesler knew exactly what Hartem player he wanted his team to foul and put in a one-and-bonus situation at the line. So did Josh Conrady, who came in shooting about 55 percent.
"I was just happy to get the first one in," said Conrady. "The first one, by far, is the hardest one."
Conrady made a crucial steal after making his first two free throws and was intentionally fouled. He sank another pair and Hartem retained possession of the ball. Ubbenga, who went 10-of-10 at the line, sank the next four free throws and the Stags were finally able to celebrate and add 2006 to regional crowns won in 1948 and 1995.
"I was scared. I think everyone on the team got scared just for a second," said Ubbenga. "Josh hit some huge free throws. That helped our confidence big time when he hit those."
Twins Dakin and Dustin Bolen, who each scored eight points, punished Illini Central inside the paint and helped Hartem extend a 36-23 halftime lead to 44-28. Then came Illini Central's rally that barely fell short.
"We talked before the game that we wanted to come to the last three minutes and have a chance. We didn't want to lose contact with them," said Giesler. "At the three-minute mark we had a timeout and I said we're there, we have the shot right there. They (the Stags) stepped up and made plays down the stretch. That's what good ball teams do."
Hartem shot 41.7 percent from the field, while Illini Central sank 40.4 percent. The Stags enjoyed a big advantage at the line, making 18 of 22 free throws compared to the Cougars' 6 of 12. Hartem also grabbed a 35-27 rebounding edge.
"Illini Central hit some tough shots. We were getting frustrated because we weren't getting calls on one end," said Nauman. "We kept getting the ball inside like the whole game and weren't able to finish. But we kept our composure and were able to pull it out at the end."