SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- It wasn't supposed to end this way.
Tuesday's Class 2A super-sectional basketball game at the Recreation and Athletic Center on the University of Illinois campus was supposed to be a coronation. A huge pro-Quincy Notre Dame crowd turned out to watch the No. 1-ranked Raiders polish off their fifth opponent of the postseason and start a week-long party that would end Saturday night in Peoria's Carver Arena -- possibly in the state championship game.
It wasn't supposed to end with hands on their heads, uniforms pulled over their faces and tears in their eyes as they stared blankly in disbelief.
The Raiders never could make Monticello speed up on either end of the court, and a shot by Johnny Dawson with 1.7 seconds remaining gave the Sages an improbable 51-49 victory.
Why was it improbable? Because only two teams had limited the high-flying Raiders to less than 60 points through 30 games. The Raiders' averaging winning margin in the postseason was 27.5 points, and three victories were against teams with at least 20 wins. Meanwhile, the Sages needed a buzzer-beater and an overtime game -- plus a victory in a game that was tied with 1:40 to play -- to get to Springfield.
Notre Dame had been so impressive all season, flexing its muscles against opponents large and small. It was on pace to have the best record in school history.
Instead, Monticello played a near-perfect game and shocked the state.
"I wouldn't say we overlooked them, but we just knew we could go to Peoria," senior Jacob Mayfield said.
Some teams don't like to talk openly about the goal of reaching the state tournament, but it was unquestionably the goal of this team all season.
"A state championship. That was our goal. We talked about it almost every day," senior Justin Bottorff said. "We were just trying to motivate ourselves. I don't think we were cocky and overlooked anybody."
In fact, this team was humble about its success because of how far it had come. Three years ago, the Raiders had a lineup that often included four freshmen -- Bottorff, Mayfield, Johnny Ray and Carter Cramsey -- and were often overwhelmed in a 7-21 season. Two years ago, the Raiders went 10-17 while going through a mid-season coaching change -- and then another coaching change late in the summer.
The Raiders' rise was a feel-good story.
Nobody felt good about Tuesday night.
"Hats off to Monticello. They played a great game," Mayfield said. "It's just hard. As a senior, it seems like it was just yesterday, I was going in as a little freshman, and now, looking back, I'm not going to get to play together again with all of these guys. It's just crazy."
"We thought we had it, being up in the fourth quarter and having the team we have," Cramsey said. "It kind of shocked us when it was all over, and we lost."
Knowing they were so close to Peoria made it hurt even worse.
QND coach Kevin Meyer knows the pain now as a coach and a player.
He was a senior on the 1989 team that had won 21 games against a brutal schedule filled with Class AA teams, and QND was expected to roll past unheralded North Greene to reach the Class A state tournament in Bob Kies' last season. Instead, North Greene shocked the Raiders 66-59 at Macomb's Western Hall.
When Meyer was interviewed after Tuesday's game, he rubbed his head and closed his eyes. Maybe not looking at the Monticello celebration would help ease the sting.
"(Going into the locker room after the game is) the hardest thing that a coach has to do, especially with what these guys have invested into it," Meyer said. "Getting here doesn't happen by luck, so there's heartache in there right now.
"When they look back at this, they'll realize it's a special year, but it hurts right now. I just wasn't ready to say goodbye."