Won one: Eagles use transition game to notch season’s first win over Longwood

RANTOUL — For eight minutes Saturday night, it looked like the same old story for the Rantoul boys basketball team.

Rantoul was stagnant and unproductive, unable to sustain anything offensively in putting up just six points in the first quarter of a nonconference game against Chicago Longwood.

But a strong defensive effort and fast-break offense from the Eagles in the final three periods led to a 75-59 victory for their first win of the season.

The Eagles (1-4) forced 20 turnovers to combat 19 giveaways of their own, and a 19-of-21 showing from the free-throw line, plus performances from Hayden Cargo (20 points) and LJ Lewis (17 points), paved the way for a 1-1 weekend split.

“We struggled right off the bat, but we realized we needed to communicate and execute the whole game,” Lewis said.

The winless Eagles were coming off Friday night’s 61-49 loss to Morton in which they got off to a similar slow start, and they picked up where they left off by shooting 1-for-10 from the field, committing five turnovers and seeing Lewis pick up his second foul with less than a minute remaining in the period.

“I think the stagnant part comes from being down on ourselves and lacking confidence with the 0-4 start,” Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said. “We started the same way (against Morton). I told them you’ve got to start having fun and get out in transition and rebound more. And, obviously, making baskets makes a huge difference so we can put on our press.”

Message received.

Rantoul put an 11-6 first-quarter deficit on the backburner, blitzing Longwood with a fullcourt press and jumping passing lanes to force seven turnovers, converting most of those takeaways into points in transition.

The fastbreak attack led to a balanced scoring effort in the period in which seven different players scored, combining to shoot 10-for-19 from the field and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the period to take a 33-25 halftime lead.

“Fastbreak plays a big role in what we do,” said Cargo, who scored a game-high 16 points in the loss to Morton. “A lot of it came from the press we put on and getting a lot of steals going the other way for easy buckets. Putting pressure on the ball is where it stemmed from.

“This week in practice, we worked on boxing out and closing out, making sure we had our guy on defense and switching off screens and stuff like that. That was one of the most important things we focused on in practice this week.”

The Eagles’ 16-2 run in the period began with back-to-back threes from Keyon Button and Cargo, and another Cargo three preceded an “and-one” bucket by Kamryn Rome (12 points) for a 24-15 lead at the 4-minute mark. Cargo later converted an “and-one” basket of his own for a 29-20 advantage.

“Hayden sparked us right there. I thought I had more points, but I guess I didn’t,” Lewis said with a laugh. “That’s basically what our program’s based on is running and gunning. We just work on getting open and getting the buckets that are right there for us. By far our best quarter. We came out and executed and ran everything like we expected.”

Rantoul came out firing in the second half, as Lewis splashed two straight three-pointers to extend the lead to 45-25 midway through the third quarter.

When the Panthers cut the lead to 12 in the fourth quarter, Cargo buried a three, and Lewis converted another three-point play on the next possession for a 65-45 cushion to put the game away.

“The key is just to get some confidence with this team and starting out a little bit better and having some fun,” Frerichs said. “Nobody has fun when you’re 0-4, and everything is magnified starting out with four losses. … “We had some chances down the stretch in three of the four games. Just shot ourselves in the foot with turnovers and fouls. The fouls were a lot better tonight.”

In the first four games, poor positioning, bad rotations and lackadaisical effort were the Achilles’ heel for the Eagles on defense.

“We’ve been working on cutting down on fouls in practice,” Cargo said. “Any time we commit a foul, we do a down-and-back sprint. It’s mainly being lazy and not playing help-side defense, so we’ve been taking a lot of charges (in practice) and making sure we’re in the right position so we don’t get as many fouls.”

Noticeably abstaining from foul trouble Saturday was 6-5 forward Latavius Winston, arguably the Eagles’ most important player, who has seen a lot of time on the bench after picking up early fouls. The senior committed just one foul Saturday night, but Winston was also noticeably absent from the scoring column. He finished with no points and 11 rebounds, but Rantoul was still able to grab its first win.

“Latavius has really struggled on the offensive end this year,” Frerichs said. “At this point, it’s all mental. He’s missing two-footers. It’s really mental with him, but we’ve told him if he can get double-digit rebounds for us, the points will come. As long as he continues to rebound and play defense, the points will come, and the shots will fall.”

Next up for Rantoul is a matchup Friday with St. Joseph-Ogden (1-2) in a game that counts as a nonconference game for the pair of Illini Prairie Conference foes. The Eagles will have to deal with the Spartans’ Jack Cook, who is coming off back-to-back 22-point performances over the weekend.

“Easy win for us if we come in and take things serious and execute,” said Lewis, who scored 13 against Morton. “Take things serious and execute, and it’ll be an easy win for us. LJ’s going for his 20-bomb that game.”

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

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