On paper, it looked like a mismatch.
Short-handed Pekin, with only seven players dressed (two freshmen), facing undefeated Dunlap, touted as one of the area’s best girls basketball teams and featuring two Division I recruits on its roster.
Paper doesn’t always transfer to the court.
Pekin gave visiting Dunlap a fight to the finish Friday night in a Mid-Illini Conference opener before losing 52-47 at Hawkins Gym.
“Our girls worked so hard. I can’t fault their effort,” said Pekin coach Becky Fulkerson. “We played much better than we did against Normal West (in a 63-30 loss earlier in the week). Like night and day. We were better prepared and more focused. We need to work on being more consistent.”
Natalie Johnson (knee) and Jenna Taphorn (concussion) of the Dragons were sidelined by injuries.
Johnson is expected back in January. It isn’t known when Taphorn will return. So Pekin will have a slim bench for a while.
Dunlap coach Heather Cassady gave an honest appraisal of her team’s performance against Pekin.
“A win is a win, but this one was ugly,” she said. “This was a conference game and we were ready to go, but we didn’t play well together. We had some soft passes, our defense wasn’t disciplined at times, we allowed too much penetration ... but we can correct those things.”
The Eagles’ D-1 recruits are 6-0 guard Kai Koehler (Southern Illinois-Edwardsville) and 6-1 center Christina Britter (Northern Illinois).
Koehler scored a game-high 17 points against Pekin (4-3, 0-1). Britter had 11 points and eight rebounds but she didn’t score in the second half, going 0-for-3 at the foul line.
Aanise Sajna and Saniya Tutt each had eight points for Dunlap (5-0, 1-0), with Sajna also getting four steals.
Britter missed just about all of last year after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Dunlap’s opening game.
“Christina isn’t all there yet. We’re looking at mid-season,” Cassady said. “But even at less than 100 percent, she’s a player who will help you in every game.”
Pekin’s Molly Flannigan scored 16 points against Dunlap, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Maddy Cash had 13 points and freshman Taylor Goss had six, all in the first quarter.
“Molly had a phenomenal game,” Fulkerson said.
Pekin led 17-9 after the first quarter and built its lead to 10 points (24-14) on a triple by Flannigan with 3:52 left in the first half.
But Dunlap scored the final 11 points of the half to lead 25-24 at halftime, moving in front for the first time in the game on a drive to the hoop by Tutt at the buzzer.
A triple by Koehler put Dunlap ahead for good 32-30 late in the third quarter.
The Dragons trailed 35-32 at the end of the quarter. Standing alone at the free throw line, Cash sank two free throws after being fouled on a 3-point shot at the buzzer.
Tutt stole Pekin’s in-bounds pass to start the fourth quarter and the freshman turned it into a three-point play, giving Dunlap a 38-32 lead.
The Eagles built a 12-point advantage (48-36) that Pekin cut in half, but Koehler kept the Dragons at bay by scoring her team’s last four points.
Steve Stein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.