PEORIA — Many of the players on Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School's basketball team know the euphoria of being champions. They also know how it feels to finish third.

They want no part of the latter this weekend in the Class 2A State Tournament.

The Falcons' nine seniors placed third in the Illinois Elementary School Association state tournament in seventh and eighth grades, suffering their only loss each season in the state semifinals. Most of the same players also won Class 2A state football championships the past two years.

"We didn't come this far just to come this far," said senior starting guard Ben Freehill, a standout kicker in football. "We're not going to settle for making it to state. We want to go all the way."

The third-ranked Falcons take a 32-2 record and 31-game win streak into Friday's 7:15 p.m. semifinal against No. 1-ranked Nashville (34-2) at Carver Arena.

Senior guard Caleb Bleich, a soccer player in the fall, said of those junior high near-misses, "We felt we could have done better than that."

"I think we're looking to do that now," he added.

Nashville has won 19 in a row and been ranked No. 1 a good chunk of the season. The Hornets are led by 6-foot-5 senior Bryson Bultman and 6-5 junior Carson Parker at 14.6 points per game each.

Nashville also starts 6-6 senior Tanner Bergmann (3.3 ppg) along with guards Kelton Harre (4.4) and Tristen Hercules (4.5). The patient Hornets have held all but one opponent under 50 points (52 vs. DuQuoin).

"We've heard they're a really good defensive team," Freehill said. "Coach (Ryan Tompkins) said they're big and long. We just have to come out and stick to our game plan.

"We're so used to playing with each other we know we have the capability to go as far as we want to go. We know if we play together and play our game, we'll be good."

Tompkins didn't settle for calling Nashville a good defensive team. The GCMS coach rated the Hornets "a very, very, very good defensive team."

"They have great size and they've held opponents under 40 pretty consistently (30 times)," Tompkins said. "They play a pretty deliberate style. They'll space you out with some shooters.

"At this point, we've told our guys, 'It (the title) is anybody's.' We want them to understand they've earned an opportunity, so we have to go out and continue to defend, rebound and share the ball."

GCMS' balanced scoring attack is led by 6-5 senior forward Ryland Holt (14.4 ppg) and 6-2, 225-pound senior guard/forward Bryce Barnes (14.1). Senior guard Connor Birky is at 12.6 with a team-high 71 3-pointers.

Holt, a Minnesota State recruit and AP second-team all-stater, paces the Falcons in rebounds (9.5) and has blocked a team-high 101 shots. Barnes adds 7.0 rebounds and a team-leading 3.9 assists.

The Falcons are in the state basketball tournament for the first time as GCMS. Gibson City and Melvin-Sibley became one school in 1993 and Tompkins was a senior that year.

"As coaches we talk all the time that it's a blessing to be part of this," Tompkins said. "A big thanks to the guys for bringing us on this journey.

"We've stretched the season as far as you can. That's pretty cool, but it's a pretty focused group. We have things out there we still want to do and want to accomplish."

Chicago Corliss (20-8) and second-ranked Chicago Orr (23-11) square off in Friday's 5:30 p.m. semifinal. The winners play for the championship at 7:15 p.m. Saturday after the losers meet for third place at 5:30.

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Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred


Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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