RANTOUL — When a team loses a close game, a coach can point to many reasons. The Rantoul Township High School Eagles ended their season on Monday night with a 61-55 loss to the Mahomet-Seymour Bulldogs in the opening round of the Illinois High School Association Class 3A Regional, which was held at RTHS. The final score truly does not indicate how close the game was and Bulldogs did not take possession of the lead, for good, until the final 45 seconds of the game.

"You hate to lose a game at the free throw line," said Brett Frerichs, Rantoul’s head coach. "I thought coming into the game it was a 50/50 game. Either team could win. We had some bad luck, we let our emotions take over and you can’t allow it to happen to that level."

And they did it from the free throw line. Rantoul, who was charged with a technical foul in the final minute of the game, and the Bulldogs did not let the freebie opportunity go to waste. They promptly grabbed the Wilson-emblazoned basketball and made seven of eight free throws in the final 42.6 seconds of the game. Juniors Cole Lener and Grant Coleman both stood alone to shoot their free throws, hitting the first four, two charity tosses each. Senior Jordan Veldman hit two more with 28.7 seconds left, while junior Kobe Essien added one free throw in the final 20 seconds.

The seven free throws turned a one-point deficit, 55-54, into a victory for the Bulldogs. Overall, the Bulldogs would hit 12 free throws in the final 2:10 of the game. With 2:04 to play, Winston fouled out of the game as the Bulldogs sunk three free throws, as Winston fouled out attempting to block a three-pointer. Fifteen seconds later, the Bulldogs were back at the charity stripe sinking two more free throws.

"When Latavius fouled out of the game, it takes away alot of our offensive plays and alters us defensively," said Frerichs. "When we committed a foul on that three-pointer, it was a dagger. Not only did we send them to the charity stripe, but we lost Latavius in the process. I wish at times, we made a better defensive effort."

The Eagles held a slim 26-25 lead at halftime. While the Eagles dominated parts of the first half, the second half was a back-and-fourth war with neither team leading by more than seven points. Rantoul got one lone bucket and one lone free throw from 6-foot-5 senior Latavius Winston in the first four minutes of the game. The Bulldogs led 36-29 with 3:55 to play in the third, when Rantoul started cutting into the lead. Kamryn Rome tickled the net with a three pointer with 24 seconds to play to cut the Bulldog lead to 39-37 by the end of the third quarter.

Winston hit a bucket at the 3:45 mark, while Keyon Button hit two free throws in the final two minutes of the quarter. Rome nailed a regulation bucket with 7:23 to play to knot the game up at 39-39. While the Bulldogs led most of the quarter, the Eagles managed to go on an 8-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to regain the lead. Rome started the run with a bucket at 4:43, followed by a three-pointer from the from the right wing by Hayden Cargo. Freshman Jimmy Nixon hit a free throw and Winston nailed an inside bucket to complete the run.

The Eagles took their final lead with 1:03 to play on a tip-in bucket by Angelo Brown, who tipped in Rome’s missed shot.

"Winston gave us fits around the basket," said Mahomet-Seymour mentor Ryan Bosch. "He is tough to stop around the basket and he rebounds so well. When that happened, they went to a smaller, quicker lineup and we had to guard them a little differently."

RTHS was on fire in the first half and led by as many as nine points in the first quarter. But, by each break, the Bulldogs drew closer. The Eagles led 19-16 at the first break.

Three Eagles were in double figures, led by Rome, who had 14 points. Winston finished with 11 points, while Cargo had 10 points. The scoring was rounded out by Nixon, who finished with eight points, while Lewis, Brown and Button each scored four. In addition to their 14-17 mark, they were 6-3 in the Illini Prairie Conference.