On the mend: After starting season 2-10, Eagles win three straight at Taylorville

TAYLORVILLE — It truly was rock bottom.

The players felt it, and so did the coaches.

Following Rantoul boys basketball’s 76-28 embarrassment against Bloomington Dec. 22, something needed to change.

Something did.

After losing the first two games of the Taylorville Holiday Tournament on Thursday (a 65-53 loss to Illinois Valley Central despite 18 points from Latavius Winston and 10 from Kamryn Rome) and Friday (a 73-51 drubbing at the hands of the hosts), the Eagles’ season began with a record of 2-10.

“It was mentally exhausting for everybody, from the players to the coaches to the fans,” Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said. “We lost that first game, and we had a one-point lead late. It was almost like, ‘Here we go again.’ It was just draining, and then we let that carry over to the Taylorville game.”

But in the nightcap Friday, the Eagles began to turn things around, bouncing back with a 61-39 win over Mt. Zion, turning a 34-16 halftime lead into an easy victory (if such a label exists with this team) behind a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds from freshman point guard Jimmy Nixon and 14 points from Winston.

On Saturday, Rantoul awoke bright and early for a 9 a.m. tilt against Rochester that exploded into an early-morning thriller, with the Eagles’ squeaking out an 80-78 overtime victory on the back of Eric Whisby.

With the dismissal of two guards who had been playing in front of Whisby, the junior guard has been getting his chance to make some plays, and none were bigger than the two he made in the extra session.

After surrendering a 34-point fourth quarter to Rochester that erased an 18-point lead, including a game-tying fade-away corner three-pointer at the buzzer, the Eagles trailed by four with less than a minute remaining in overtime.

But after cutting the deficit to two, Frerichs drew up a play out of a timeout, and Whisby converted a game-tying bucket of his own. The Eagles full-court pressed on Rochester’s in-bounds play, Whisby stole the ball and laid it up for the game-winner with less than three seconds remaining.

“Eric Whisby came up huge for us,” Frerichs said. “They shot the heck out of the ball, and we did everything we could to keep them in the game. … The way we’ve been this season, you blow an 18-point lead, and I don’t think anyone expected us to bounce back and get that win. That was a huge win for us.”

The Eagles shot 14-of-29 at the free-throw line, and Rochester buried 13 three-pointers and finished 19-of-22 at the line. But Hayden Cargo was electric from deep himself, burying six three-pointers en route to 25 points, and the senior guard was backed by Winston’s 14 points, eight rebounds and 11 points from Angelo Brown.

“I knew I hit a couple threes, but I didn’t know it was that many. I knew I was on, but I didn’t know it was six. It didn’t feel any different. I was just shooting and not thinking about it,” Cargo said. “We played a lot smarter than we did against Bloomington. … Night and day difference for sure.”

In Rantoul’s second game Saturday, it came out firing on all cylinders early yet again before sealing a 63-42 win over Dunlap.

Cargo’s trio of three-pointers and a Brown outback gave the Eagles an 18-7 lead with 1 minute, 55 seconds remaining in the first period, and Dunlap burned three timeouts in the game’s first 6 minutes.

Winston’s layup off the glass at the buzzer gave Rantoul a 22-9 lead at the end of the period.

Cargo buried another three to start the second quarter, Nixon came up with a steal and sliced into the lane for a runner, and Cargo converted a quick bucket on a lob to give his team a 33-16 halftime lead.

The Eagles (5-10) extended their lead to 44-20 with less than 3 minutes left in the third period, but Dunlap cut the deficit to 44-30 moments into the fourth quarter with a 10-0 run. Cody Baer scored eight of Dunlap’s 10 points, but Nixon’s corner three gave the Eagles a 47-30 advantage.

“I think it’s been great,” Frerichs said of the move to start Nixon at point guard. “I think it’s a huge story when a freshman comes and plays varsity, regardless of the circumstances. He’s coming along nice. He’s going to hit his ups and downs. This morning, he fouled out and played defense like a freshman. But he’s going to be huge for us. He’s going to improve every game, and it’s nice knowing we have a guy who’s going to do the right things on and off the court. He’s going to mature and get better.”

Another maturing player is Jaxon Freeman. The sophomore guard hit a big three against IVC, and on Saturday, he buried a baseline jumper following Nixon’s big shot. Freeman scored seven points in the final period and may begin to see more playing time in 2019.

“He’s just a smart player,” Frerichs said. “He’s like having a coach on the floor. With him and Jimmy and the other juniors, they came up pretty big overall for us. That’s big because after all our dismissals, our guards are a little depleted.”

For Rantoul, the three straight victories to close out the calendar year could not have come at a more perfect time. Confidence and energy were at an all-time low following the blowout loss to Bloomington.

To come out and show some fight had the coaching staff feeling like Dec. 22 was miles away.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in this tournament,” Frerichs said. “We bottomed out against Bloomington, and we played four of five games really high quality. We let one slip away the first night to IVC with some empty possessions late and almost let one slip this morning.

“But, overall, with our rotations and getting Jimmy in there at (point guard) for us and finally settling in with this roster that we’re just now getting used to with our substitution patterns, I thought we played pretty good. Now, we can get back to practice, and we have nice little stretch we can string some wins together if we keep improving.”

The Eagles get back to action Jan. 8 against Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Jan. 11 against Mattoon. Both games are at home before Rantoul travels to La Salette Academy on Jan. 12 and Unity on Jan. 15.

“I don’t think I can even put into words how much of a relief it is to get some wins. We work too hard to not get wins with all the offseason work we do, and we go hard in practice. It’s more of a relief than anything,” Frerichs said. “To come back and salvage the win over Dunlap, I thought that showed a lot of character, and we haven’t shown much character all year.

“I don’t want to jinx it because last time I said this, we went the other way. But I’m feeling a lot better than we were after we talked after the Bloomington game.”

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

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