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O’Brien: Curie survives Rockford Auburn, heads to title game

PEORIA — Curie has yearned for a state finals appearance for so long that some big game jitters at Carver Arena on Friday would have been forgivable.

It didn’t happen. The Condors came out poised and confident and took a massive lead, then held on to beat Rockford Auburn 55-53 in the Class 4A state semifinals.

“I’m just happy to get a win downstate,” Curie coach Mike Oliver said.

Elijah Joiner scored 13 in a 15-0 run to open the game. He finished with 22 points and seven rebounds.

“I think I just had a good shooting night, that’s all,” Joiner said.

He also made the key shot in the game, a three-pointer from the left corner with 1:12 to play that put the Condors (27-5) ahead 53-49. Curie senior Devin Gage, a DePaul recruit, passed him the ball.

“I told him if he swang me the ball I’d hit the shot for him, told him to trust me,” Joiner said.

Gage, who has saved his best for late in the game most of the season, did the same on Friday. The Condors trailed the Knights (25-7) by six early in the fourth quarter.

“We just stopped playing team basketball and started going one on one,” Oliver said. “We thought the game was over in the first quarter.”

Gage began asserting himself in the fourth. He drained a three-pointer 6:28 to play and then started getting to the rim.

“We try to use Devin on the ball a lot at the end of the game,” Oliver said. “A lot of teams like to key in on him and we like for him to penetrate and get to the basket or find the open shooter. He’s our best driver and one of our toughest free throw shooters.”

Gage finished with 14 points and seven assists and six rebounds. Terry Smith Jr. added nine points and five rebounds for the Condors.

Curie committed 17 turnovers, an uncharacteristically high number.

“[Auburn] just came out real scrappy and played hard,” Gage said. “I think we forced ourselves into a lot of the turnovers.”

Trayvon Tyler and Shidyae Evans each scored 12 for Rockford Auburn.

It was a familiar script for the Condors, who have continually depended on late game heroics from Gage.

“It’s not how you start the game it’s how you finish it,” Gage said. “My teammates trust me when I have the ball in my hands. They know what spots to go to and I know where to look for them. I’m a senior, I’m the leader and I have to keep it going.”

Curie will face the Simeon vs. Benet winner in the state title game on Saturday. The Condors beat Simeon on a buzzer-beating half court heave from Gage at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in late December.