BRAIDWOOD — Seneca never trailed Tuesday evening, but the Fighting Irish never built a lead over Herscher that could be called comfortable until the final seconds of the game.
The top-seeded Irish Irish won 43-34 over the No. 4 Tigers in Interstate Eight Conference Tournament semifinal play at Reed-Custer, but they never led by more than six points until Peyton Schrag made two free throws with 37 seconds to play. At the end of each of the first three quarters, the Irish led by four points — 14-10 after the first, 20-16 after the second and 33-29 after the third.
Herscher held the Irish to just 34 shots, of which the Irish made 13. Seneca's ability to get to and convert at the free-throw line, where it was 14-for-16, boosted its point total some, but it was still the lowest Irish output of 2013.
"I thought they did a nice job defensively," Schrag said of the Tigers. "They really packed it in, so passing into the lane was going to be tough. With a lead, we were going to let 'em play that way. We were happy to have the time come off the clock."
A basket by Herscher's Thomas Walsh to open the fourth quarter made it a two-point game, but a long Schrag basket and two Jimmy David free throws upped the Seneca lead to 37-31 with 5:52 to play. There it remained for more than two minutes until Dan Sullivan made a short basket for the Tigers.
Sullivan's was the last basket for Herscher, which went 2-for-10 from the field in the fourth quarter. The Tigers got only a late Mitchell Schwarzkopf free throw. Schrag, Brian Bergeson, Conlan Callahan and David combined to go 6-for-7 at the line in the final 37 seconds for Seneca to erase doubt about the outcome.
"I think we're at about 72 percent from the line for the season," Seneca coach Russell Witte said. The Irish had made 214-of-299 attempts (71.6 percent) entering the tournament. "I'm feel pretty good about taking our chances there."
Schrag scored 13 points and added five rebounds and three assists to lead the Irish in all three categories. Callahan had 10 points and Bergeson eight.
"Peyton Schrag did a nice job. It would be great if we can get him going again and have all three of my guards (Schrag, Callahan and David) really shooting well from the perimeter," Witte said. "Austin Applebee did a great job inside tonight inside when Chris (Lee) and Brad (Wyss) were struggling a little bit to keep 54 (Sullivan) off the glass and Chris got in foul trouble."
The win was the second straight by a nine-point margin for the Irish, who won 78-69 over Reed-Custer in quarterfinal play Saturday. Nine of their 17 wins this season have been decided by single digits.
"We've played a lot of close games, and we've done a lot better job of finishing than we did last year," Schrag said. "We've had to respond to some adversity, and though that, we've gotten confidence in those (late-game) situations, for the most part."
The Irish will play Westmont, which edged Lisle in Tuesday's other semifinal, in the championship Friday night.