A pair of undefeated, underdogs have positioned themselves for Peach Jam immortality.
The Wisconsin Playground Warriors (7-0) dissected pre-Jam favorites, the Southern California All-Stars, 74-62 in one of two semifinal matchups Wednesday night at Riverview Park. The Illinois Warriors (7-0) disposed of a pesky Boo Williams squad 71-66.
The tandem of underrated survivors will clash today for the Peach Jam championship in an 11 a.m. showdown.
An emotional Rick Stimac, Wisconsin's coach, will battle friend Larry Butler's Warriors in the finals. Upstaging the mighty All-Stars was a super-human feat. Guard Drake Diener was Wisconsin's Hercules, making four of five 3pointers and finishing with 15 points.
Diener is averaging 16.8 points in the Jam, and his outside accuracy neutralized Southern California's athletic and size advantages. With the lead flip-flopping four times in the final five minutes, Diener drained his third 3-pointer at the 4:08 mark of the second half to give Wisconsin a 63-62 lead.
They would not relinquish the advantage.
"The kids wouldn't quit," Stimac said. "They have some of the best athletes in the country, but we play as a team, and we really wanted it."
Greg Brown led Wisconsin with 23 points. Deonte Tatum tantalized the packed North Augusta gym with acrobatic moves through the lane to score 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
Diener watched Southern Cal gradually whittle away an early 23-14 lead and take a 39-38 edge two minutes into the second half. Wisconsin would answer by making four of eight 3-pointers after halftime while shooting 55.5 percent from the field in the final 16 minutes.
"I knew we had a chance to win," Diener said. "I thought they were pretty tough, and I was glad we came out with a win. We found a way to win."
Stimac predicts a fierce battle with his buddy Butler.
"Both teams are coming in very hungry," Stimac said. "We both have something to prove; that's when you're dangerous."
Seeking vindication after receiving little pre-tournament hype, Illinois is one game from taking the Peach Jam crown. Warriors guard Pierre Pierce insisted his team's reputation was unfairly based on a poor spring in which four players were injured.
Now at full strength, the Warriors came into this week's competition expecting to change people's perceptions.
"(Winning) would be a great boost to us," said Pierce, who scored 16 points against Boo Williams. "In the spring, we had a lot of injuries and never had a completely healthy team. We weren't even picked to win our pool. Team Florida was supposed to win.
"We don't feel anybody in this tournament can beat us."
Reach Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3221.
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