As they do every year, the boys basketball team has headed downstate for the annual Pekin holiday basketball tournament. From Dec. 27 to Dec. 29, teams from all over the state descend on this hamlet located halfway between Chicago and Saint Louis — about 165 miles from each.
The Pekin tourney is in its 47th year, having started in 1964 with far fewer teams in the mix than there are in 2011. It is a tradition that has become an important community event for this town of just more than 34,000.
Pekin Insurance became the title sponsor for the holiday tournament in 1999. The tourney’s committee is made up of community leaders, Pekin Community High School representatives and assorted volunteers. It has evolved into one of the most significant tournaments in the state, and one of the crown jewel events of the yuletide season.
With a network of more than 50 sponsors — Pekin Insurance is the largest — the tourney has grown into an important event that spotlights a number of Illinois high school basketball teams. Jay Holloman, director of financial products for Pekin Insurance, declined to specify how much his company kicks in to the tourney, but it is a substantial portion of the total budget of $50,000 to $60,000.
New this year to the tournament was a live feed of the games. The committee streamed a slightly delayed video feed from many of the games online. The plan is to use this year as a test, with the games shifting to a live feed next year, according to Holloman.
The videos can be viewed at www.holidaytournament.com.
Lake Zurich opened the tournament with a 42-27 loss to Pekin on Tuesday. The Bears led 6-5 after the first quarter before falling behind 14-12 at halftime. The Dragons led 25-22 at the end of the third quarter before they poured it on in the fourth, when they outscored Lake Zurich 17-5.
“Pekin did a great job switching screens and playing physical defense, but we just weren’t aggressive enough,” said Bears coach Billy Pitcher. “They attacked the basket much better than us in the second half.”
Jeff O’Brien was Lake Zurich’s top scoring with 12 points, including a pair of 3-pointers in the second half. Mirko Grcic, who is averaging 19.5 points a game this year, scored the first 6 of his team’s points, but was shut out after that.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Bears were again on the short end of a lopsided fourth-quarter scoring discrepancy. The Freeport Pretzels outscored them 17-7, en route to a 46-41 Lake Zurich loss. The Bears led 34-29 through the first three quarters.
Grcic led all scorers with 17 points. He also had five rebounds. Doug Murphy contributed with 8 points and six rebounds; O’Brien chipped in with 7 points and three rebounds.
The Bears were looking good until the fateful fourth; they outscored Freeport 11-6 in the second quarter and 18-8 in the third.
On Wednesday night, Lake Zurich won their first game of the tourney, defeating LaSalle-Peru 59-35. The Bears jumped out to a 23-8 lead after the first quarter expired, 39-17 at the half and 48-29 after the third. Grcic led Lake Zurich with 14 points; Doug Murphy and Zach Johnson scored 8 each.
On Thursday afternoon, in their final game of the tournament against Dolton Thornridge, the Bears won 49-45, to finish with an overall record of 2-2. Mirko Grcic dominated the court with his best game of the tourney, scoring 27 points and going 9-for-23 on field goal attempts. Grcic also led everyone with 14 rebounds, eight on offense. He also scored a pair of 3-pointers. Doug Murphy added 9 points and seven rebounds. The Falcons' Gene Jackson paced his team with 14 points.
Bears Pause: Grcic paced Lake Zurich with 10 rebounds in their loss to Pekin. Doug Murphy finished with seven. Brendan Seeger finished with three assists and two steals. With their victory over Dolton Thornridge, the Bears are now 10-8 on the season. They've already exceeded their win total from last year.
Next Up: Lake Zurich is off until Jan. 7, when they host Stevenson in an always-heated rivalry. They then travel to Lake Forest on Jan. 13.