FAIRBURY — After what he termed a "bad first half" of practice on Monday, University High School basketball coach Andrew McDowell had a chat with his team regarding the possibility of that happening in a postseason game.
"We talked about how if we're down and we have to refocus," McDowell said. "We said, 'In that situation, what do you do?' Our kids said, 'We have to stay together, believe in what we do, we have to play through Nate on the block.'"
The teaching moment came into play Wednesday night, when hot-shooting Pontiac bolted to a 30-15 lead and had a 36-29 halftime cushion. U High went "through Nate" — senior forward Nate Torres — and roared back for a 71-58 victory in the semifinals of the Class 3A Prairie Central Regional.
The 6-foot-4 Torres had 26 points, 13 rebounds and went 12 for 12 at the free-throw line as third-seeded U High (21-9) advanced to face No. 2 seed Kankakee in Friday's 7 p.m. championship game.
"He was phenomenal," McDowell said. "And then it was our turn in the second half to make shots. Logan (Christensen) and Drew (Wollenschlager) made some big ones."
U High hit 7 of its first 10 second-half shots, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, and turned its halftime deficit into a 53-51 lead after three quarters. Wollenschlager sank two of the 3s and had two assists in the period.
Christensen took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of his 13 points and sinking two 3-pointers. The most pivotal came with 2:21 left, stretching a 62-58 lead to 65-58.
"You have to credit Logan and Drew for hanging in there after they didn't make many in the first half ... to stay mentally engaged and want the ball and shoot with confidence," McDowell said. "Alex (Wood) was consistent throughout. He carried us early and Nate was huge throughout."
Torres had 16 second-half points, with eight of his free throws coming after halftime.
"It was tough," Torres said of the win."They hit everything (early). We just stayed in there and kept on playing and fought back.
"At halftime we were confident we could get the ball inside and then kick out for good looks. All of our shooters knocked down shots and we played really well."
Wollenschlager ended with 15 points, while Wood joined Christensen with 13.
Pontiac (17-13), which was led by Joseph Murphy's 17 points, sank six of its first seven 3-point attempts while building its 30-15 lead. The Indians ended 6 of 10 from beyond the arc in the opening half.
U High picked up its defensive pressure in the second half and got its lead to 60-51 with 6:30 left. Pontiac whittled the deficit to 60-57 with six straight free throws, but was outscored 11-1 after that.
"We got the lead, they turned up the intensity and we didn't match it," Pontiac coach Durrell Robinson said. "They're a good team. Our margin of error was very slim.
"We came out with great energy. Once they started making a couple, they turned up their intensity on defense and we kind of shied away from it."
Robinson, whose team also received 13 points from Carter Dawson and 10 from Ryan Weir, wasn't surprised by the free-throw accuracy of Torres, an 80 percent shooter for the season.
"He's done that all year. That's why we didn't want to put him at the line," Robinson said. "He's a great skilled kid. We wanted to play defense without fouling. If he goes to the line he's almost automatic."
Wollenschlager agreed. Asked if Torres stayed in the gym all night if he would miss a free throw, Wollenschlager replied, "No."
"I don't even go for the rebounds any more with him because I know he's going to make it," Wollenschlager said. "Coach always tells us to play through Nate and he's one of the most efficient scorers we have."