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'Doesn't feel real': Illini Bluffs advances to Class 1A title game in overtime victory

Illini Bluffs
The Illini Bluffs Tigers celebrate their victory over Altamont in Thursday's Class 1A state semifinal at CEFCU Arena. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

NORMAL — Illini Bluffs girls’ basketball entered Thursday’s Class 1A semifinal 32 minutes shy of its first ever state championship game appearance. 

An unlikely surge and the heroics of the Tigers’ bench helped Illini Bluffs topple Altamont in a 60-48 overtime thriller at CEFCU Arena on the campus of Illinois State. 

To make it even more special, this year's crop of seniors is the last that Illini Bluffs head coach and former junior high coach Jim Belville has coached all the way through seventh grade. Their last game together will be the biggest of their lives.

“I talked all year about how I don’t look past the next game on our schedule, let alone looking seven years down the road,” Belville said. “[I] definitely knew we had something special when I had these girls in seventh grade and it’s been a great ride.”

As large swaths of fans from each school painted much of the venue’s lower bowl in orange, Illini Bluffs’ student section opposite the Tigers’ bench had reason to cheer early. Annabelle Fortin, Lily Luczkowiak and Marissa Robertson combined to connect on their first four attempts from beyond the arc. 

Altamont converted just one of its first eight attempts from deep, when Illinois State signee Grace Nelson opened the team’s scoring with the Indians’ first seven points but Illini Bluffs claimed a 14-11 lead by the end of the quarter. 

Annabelle Fortin
Illini Bluffs' Annabelle Fortin shoots a 3-pointer in Thursday's Class 1A state semifinal against Altamont. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

“Coming out and shooting like that helps your confidence 100 percent,” Belville said. “To get off to that hot start and really get into the flow of the game real early … the girls know they’ve always got the green light to shoot the three as long as it’s a good look.” 

Nelson finished the first half with 16 points and added two three-pointers in the first 16 minutes that helped the Indians carve a 24-22 lead entering the halftime locker room. 

“Everything she got though was rebounds and dominating with her physicality or they just dumped off to her,” Belville said. “We just over-rotated and we talked (about how) this is how she gets her points in situations like that and we didn’t do a very good job with that.” 

Neither side led by more than six points during regulation. Altamont secured a six-point lead shortly into the third quarter before the Tigers forced a 28-28 tie by the 1:15 mark thanks to a personal 6-0 run from Luczkowiak that featured two layups and a jumper  

Luczkowiak helped Illini Bluffs adopt a paint-heavy approach in the second half, frequently using her 5-foot-10 frame to work past traffic in the lane. She scored all of the Tigers’ 10 points in the third stanza, including contested putback at the buzzer that helped skirt Altamont’s growing lead to 36-32. 

Lily Luczkowiak
Illini Bluffs' Lily Luczkowiak shoots a free throw in Thursday's Class 1A state semifinal

“I think knowing that's what I needed to do, once I did get in the paint [I scored] and like coach said, I had to work for everything that I really got,” Luczkowiak said. 

“Knowing I need to push through with the physicality does get tiring but I feel like the adrenaline and the excitement like ‘We need to keep pushing,’ that overtakes it all.”

A back-and-forth final quarter resulted in Altamont leading 45-41 with 2:12 remaining. Ten seconds later, a drive from Luczkowiak resulted in a free throw that cut the deficit to one possession. 

Enter senior forward Reese Cruit, who capitalized on a defensive stop and drained her only field goal attempt of the game on the Tigers’ subsequent possession to trim the deficit to 45-44. 

Nelson was called for a travel immediately afterward, which preceded a mid-range jumper from Chloe Eeten that gave the Tigers a 46-45 lead with 1:03 left to play. 

“I was excited about it,” Cruit said. “It was important at the time because we were still down, I think, and it just gave me more energy to get down on defense and press.” 

Cruit and Eeten combined to play over 34 minutes off the bench and Eeten’s 11 points finished third among Illini Bluffs scorers behind Luczkowiak’s 27-point outburst and 12 points from Annabelle Fortin.

“Obviously kids are never happy if they’re not playing the entire game,” Belville said. “Everybody wants to play the entire game. So we’ve talked a lot this year about whether you play two minutes or 20 minutes, you give the best two minutes, the best 20 minutes, whatever the team needs.” 

Illini Bluffs
Illini Bluffs' student section and fans cheer during Thursday's Class 1A state semifinal. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

Nelson sank one of her two free throw attempts with 55 seconds left to force a 46-46 tie, which stood 41 seconds into regulation when Luczkowiak connected on a layup that went down as the game-winning shot. 

Seven of Eeten’s points came as part of a 14-2 Illini Bluffs run in the extra frame, which included a deep ball early in overtime and clutch shooting from the charity stripe, where Illini Bluffs made nine of their last 10 attempts after starting 1-5. 

“It's really unimaginable and I just feel so confident,” Luczkowiak said. “It's not necessarily surprising because we're a very talented group of girls and I feel like we 100% deserve to be in this position. But it's also just unreal to be in this moment and I'm just cherishing every bit of it.”

Altamont was left to lament missed opportunities in overtime, including a pair of turnovers and a 1-6 mark from the field, all of which were taken by Nelson. The Indians finished 4-19 from three-point range while Illini Bluffs tallied an 8-22 mark behind the arc. 

“I can’t necessarily pinpoint anything that didn’t go our way in overtime,” Altamont coach Craig Carr said. “We just got going in the wrong direction and as coaches, we couldn’t get it figured out so that’s the bottom line.”

Much of Illini Bluffs’ roster has become accustomed to playing on the statewide stage on the softball diamond, where the Tigers captured Class 1A championships in 2022 and 2023. 

Illini Bluffs
Illini Bluffs' Annabelle Fortin jumps for the tip-off against Altamont's Grace Nelson. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

Saturday’s title bout with Okawville at 11 a.m. won’t be their first time there on the hardwood, either, having won an IESA Class 7-3A state title in 2018. 

“It doesn’t feel real, we’re doing it all with the same girls we’ve been with our entire lives,” Luczkowiak said.

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