Dubuque Senior always had the long term in mind.
With a roster building chemistry as the year went along — and waiting for the moment spark plug Kendrick Watkins-Hogue would be cleared to return from an eligibility issue — the Rams stumbled to a 2-7 start to the season.
But through those early trials and tribulations, the players didn’t lose sight of the end goal.
“We knew how good we could be at the beginning of the season,” senior guard Cain McWilliams said. “We just felt like we got off to a rough start and that we weren’t playing our best. Once we figured things out, and worked at it during practice, we knew it would come together and we could get wins when it mattered.”
Peaking at the perfect time, the Rams won their seventh straight game on Monday night and earned themselves another crack at their city rivals for Round 3.
McWilliams scored a game-high 21 points, Jim Bonifas added 19 and Max Link had 13 as the Rams pulled away for a 69-58 victory over Davenport West in an Iowa Class 4A Substate 5 quarterfinal at Nora Gymnasium.
Senior (10-8) advanced to Friday’s substate semifinal at No. 5-ranked Dubuque Hempstead (15-4), which swept the Rams during the regular season.
“We knew we had the guys that could make a run in late February and early March,” Bonifas said. “We just had to get some guys in the groove and really play together. After a while, we found our rhythm and we’re going now.
“We’ve been wanting that one (with Hempstead). We’ve got the opportunity, and now it’s time to do our thing.”
The Falcons (7-8) never let Senior get totally comfortable, and even took an early 9-4 lead. Link sank a jumper and a 3-pointer to give Senior the lead, but West answered for a 13-12 lead at the end of a first period that saw eight lead changes.
Senior went on a 22-12 run over the course of the second quarter to take control. Link hit a deep triple, then Bonifas snagged a steal and made a pretty deep pass to Watkins-Hogue, who finished with a two-handed jam.
McWilliams hit back-to-back treys, and then Link added another, as the Rams built a 34-25 lead at the break.
“We’ve got seven in a row going,” Senior coach Wendell Eimers said. “We knew we were underachieving. We knew it was going to click at some point. We’ve been playing pretty well. We had some good minutes and bad minutes tonight, but I’m just glad to get that first tournament game out of the way.”
The Falcons made things interesting in a wild third quarter that saw 41 combined points scored. A quick 7-0 run to open the frame by West cut Senior’s lead to 34-32, but the Rams responded with a 6-0 run capped by McWilliams’ steal and layup.
“We just had to make sure we kept our composure,” McWilliams said. “They started the third with a 7-0 run, and we’ve gone through that type of stuff before. We just have to keep playing and come back strong.”
Senior’s resident big man, Bonifas, carried the Rams when the Falcons tightened up and played more physical inside. The Iowa State football recruit scored 11 points in the third and fired up the student section with a giant roar after a hard-fought basket and the foul to extend the lead to 47-41.
“That’s the way I love to play, being a football guy,” Bonifas said. “If that’s the way the game’s going and we’re not picking up fouls down there, I love playing that way. That didn’t bother me. I really enjoyed that.”
McWilliams and Sam Akins then chipped in a pair of triples before Tyler Schuster scored in the final seconds for a 55-45 lead heading to the fourth.
“The third quarter was a rollercoaster,” Eimers said. “We had to get some reversals and got some good shots. Jim Bonifas was really tough inside and we shot the ball well. The guards had open 3s and they knocked them down.”
Now comes the final and most important round with Hempstead, which swept the first two games of the season from the Rams — 69-42 at Moody Gym on Jan. 5 and 63-53 at Nora Gym on Jan. 29.
“We’re definitely looking for some revenge against them,” McWilliams said. “We know it’s going to be a battle. We’ll be ready.”