DES MOINES - From a contest to a clobbering and back again.
While the Class 4A semifinal matchup between Iowa City West and Linn-Mar was a bit of a wild ride, one thing never changed.
The Lions were always out in front.
Linn-Mar saw its big lead dwindle late, but had more then enough to finish off the Trojans, 63-48, on Friday afternoon to stay unbeaten and advance to the boys' basketball state championship game.
After falling behind by almost 30, the fourth-seeded Trojans (20-5) managed to claw back to within single digits of the Lions (25-0) with 3 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but then Linn-Mar's North Carolina-bound point guard Marcus Paige came up with a pair of big buckets and one flashy assist as the Lions once again pulled away.
"You could kind of see he was going to kind of take the game over a little bit down the stretch," said Linn-Mar head coach Chris Robertson of his junior guard, "and that's what great players do. It's good to have him on our side."
"(West) came out and gave us their best shot in the third quarter," he added, "and fortunately we were good enough to weather the storm and get over the hump down the stretch."
Linn-Mar will now face Des Moines Hoover tonight in the Class 4A title tilt at 8:05 p.m. inside Wells Fargo Arena.
The Lions' lead reached 27, 42-15, on Derik Gogg's basket at the 5:30 mark of the third frame, but the Trojans trimmed their deficit to 15 by the end of the quarter.
A 16-4 run had them within eight, 50-42, on Jeremy Morgan's third 3-pointer of the afternoon, but then Paige stepped up and took over.
The lefthander converted on a difficult layup, hit a mid-range jumper and then tossed a nifty no-look pass to Josh Montague for a fast break layup in succession as the Lions, who never trailed this night, kept their distance for West.
Paige finished with 23 points and three assists while playing 31 minutes.
"When they went on that big run, I had a sense of urgency," said Paige.
Coming off a 32-point performance in the tournament's opening round, Matt Bohannon, a Northern Iowa recruit, had 19 points and six rebounds for Linn-Mar. Montague finished with 10 points and seven boards in a game that looked to be over by halftime.
On just his sixth attempt from distance of the season, Ian McBrayer hit a 3-pointer at the 5:53 mark of the second quarter to spark the Lions to a 23-0 run. Three-point plays by Bohannon and Paige along with a buzzer-beating 3 from Paige to end the half highlighted the stretch.
"It gave us a little breathing room which we ended up needing. It was a huge run," said Robertson. "It was probably the difference in the game because after that it was pretty even."
West missed seven shots and committed six turnovers during the Lions' 7-minute spurt, allowing the game to get lopsided quickly.
The Trojans ended the first half shooting 25 percent while also turning it over 12 times.
"That's what (the Lions) do. I know there's an 'O' on the end (of their record) for a reason," remarked West head coach Steve Bergman. "We knew we had to play pretty clean and certainly didn't do that the second quarter."
The Trojans managed to find their stride after their 12-point first-half effort, managing to triple that output in the final 16 minutes, but it just wasn't enough as Linn-Mar shot 57.1 percent from the floor in the second half.
"We were proud that we hung in there and kept fighting," said Bergman. "You just can't give (Linn-Mar) easy ones. It's just that simple. You've got to make them earn every one."
Now Linn-Mar will play in its third title game in five years looking for its second title over that span.
"This is it. We've been grinding out one game at a time, that's been our motto all year," said Paige. "Now the big picture's here, we've just got to capitalize, be focused and hopefully come out and play a great game (today). Should be exciting."