ESCANABA - The final seconds of Wednesday night's Class D regional basketball final couldn't tick away quick enough for the North Central boys.
Senior center Trevor Ekberg sank a 21-foot set shot from top of the key in the final minute of overtime as the Jets then hung on for a 58-55 triumph over the Forest Park Trojans at Escanaba High School.
"The last 30 seconds felt like about 30 minutes," Ekberg said, noting he had no intention of taking the game-winning shot. "I didn't know how open I was. When I realized I was open, I decided to shoot. It didn't feel good when the ball left my hands. Once it went through the hoop, there was a lot of excitement. I didn't really know what to do at first. I just wanted it to be over right there."
The victory sends the Upper Peninsula's top-ranked Class D team (25-0) to Marquette, where it will face fourth-ranked Cedarville (22-2) in a state quarterfinal game Tuesday at 7 p.m.
This marked North Central's third victory over Forest Park this season. The Jets also beat the fifth-ranked Trojans at home (63-50 on Jan. 31) and in Crystal Falls (76-64 on Feb. 25).
"The teams you play during the regular season, you can tell the difference in them at tournament time," said Ekberg. "They all want to beat you. Nobody wants to get beat by the same team three times in one season. All the teams we've played in the tournaments were pretty good."
Ekberg, who scored North Central's first eight points, finished with a career-high 25. He started 6-of-6 from the floor and sank a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left in regulation to force the overtime.
Senior forward Travis Vincent added 11 points, all of which came in the second half and overtime.
"In the first half, I wasn't into the game as much as I should have been," said Vincent. "I picked up my intensity in the second half. We also got the ball into the paint more often and attacked the rim more. When Trevor hit that three, it took a little bit of the pressure off."
Caleb Martin had one of the toughest assignments Wednesday evening, having to take on 6-foot-7 big man Austin Carlson of Forest Park. Martin scored six of his nine points in the first half working against Carlson and on defense he limited his opportunities, eventually getting him to foul out late in the fourth quarter.
"He's a pretty big guy, he's got some muscle, but I think I did a pretty good job on him," Martin said. "(on offense) It was good. I had a couple assists from Josh (Granquist) there, and I tried my best."
North Central's latest victory took place 48 hours after it outlasted third-ranked Munising 54-46 in overtime.
Although everything didn't always go perfect on Wednesday, the Jets appeared to maintain their composure as they did in last Friday's 65-57 triumph over Carney-Nadeau in a district final at Bark River-Harris.
"When it's game time, you have to try to keep an even keel," said Ekberg. "If you get too hyped up, you use up too much energy. When things don't go your way, you just have to play through it. We knew we just had to step up our defense in the end."
Now that the Jets have successfully defended their regional title, they will face Cedarville for the second straight time in the quarterfinals. North Central won last year's meeting 71-59 in Marquette.
What can they expected in Tuesday's match-up?
"We expect them (Cedarville) to press us," said Vincent. "Hopefully, we can play as well as we did against them last year (in a 71-59 victory)."
Ekberg says defense will be a key as it was Wednesday night.
"I believe if we step up our defense, the offense will take care of itself," he added.
A victory on Tuesday would enable the Jets to make a return trip to Michigan State University's Breslin Center for Thursday's semifinals.