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The shots will continue to fly at a high rate.
But if the Rantoul Township High School boys basketball team’s defense doesn’t improve, the Eagles could find themselves on the wrong end of games like they did during Friday night’s home opener and Corn Belt Conference opener against Bloomington Central Catholic.
The Saints used a strong second half effort to earn a 75-64 win against the Eagles, who struggled offensively after halftime.
“Our offense translates into our defense,” RTHS junior guard Tanner McLain said. “We miss a shot on offense, and we jog back on defense. That’s what hurt us is our defense to offense (transition).”
Friday’s setback was the third in a row for the Eagles, who lost 56-50 on Nov. 27 at Monticello. RTHS (3-3, 0-1 Corn Belt) tried to reverse its three-game losing streak on Tuesday night at Pontiac, but results were unavailable at press time.
The Eagles return to the court at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Prairie Central in a quick rematch of the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Thanksgiving Tournament championship game Prairie Central narrowly won 57-56 on Nov. 24.
“We have to stay up after this loss (to Bloomington Central Catholic),” McLain, who had 14 points in the loss, said. “This was a tough one. We’ve got to bounce back and get two wins on the road (this) week.”
RTHS led the majority of the first half thanks to strong play from junior guards Talon Hardin (team-high 19 points, five assists) and Josh Oliveras (14 points), but only went into halftime up 33-32 on a drive Hardin converted with four seconds remaining.
“In the first half only being down one, we felt pretty good because they made a lot of shots,” BCC head coach Jason Welch said of the Eagles, who were 5-of-11 from 3-point range in the first two quarters. “We felt like we contested those shots, (but) they went in. We told our kids to stay down, keep guarding and rebound the ball. Early, that’s one thing that hurt us is we did not rebound the ball. Then we started rebounding the basketball.”
And making shots. Mainly from sophomore guard Jake Reinhart. Reinhart finished with a game-high 29 points on the strength of four 3-pointers.
Reinhart’s 3-pointer with 7:12 left in the third quarter gave the Saints a 35-33 lead they would not relinquish the rest of the game.
“We knew (about him) coming in,” RTHS head coach Brett Frerichs said. “They had everybody back from last year’s team. They played us tough last year, so we knew if he got open, he would hurt us. Their drives are really what hurt us. They’d get in the lane and kick it out, so we didn’t do a good job of containing dribble penetration.”
The Eagles missed their first 10 shots of the second half to allow BCC (2-3, 1-0) to take a 41-33 lead before Oliveras made a layup with 4:05 left in the third quarter.
“A lot of guys, if they’re not hitting their shots, they’re carrying that over to the defensive end of the floor,” Frerichs said. “Supposedly, that’s what we pride ourselves on is our defense. BCC is a great shooting team. When they get looks like they did (Friday), they’re going to hit those shots. We have a lot of improvement to go on the defensive end.”
The Saints kept RTHS at bay the rest of the game, extending their lead to 61-48 with 5:04 left in the fourth quarter after junior forward Jake Hester (seven points) scored inside. Hardin tried to single-handedly bring the Eagles back.
He dished to McLain for a 3-pointer that made RTHS’ deficit at 64-55 with 3:12 left and then drained his fourth 3-pointer of the game, this one from the right wing, with 2:30 left that trimmed the Eagles’ deficit to 66-59.
“We’ve just got to get over that hump,” Hardin said. “We’ve got to mature. We’ve just got to get used to not having those letdowns because we seem to have one every game in the third or fourth quarter. That’s not what we need.”
But the Saints answered with six straight points to lead 72-59 with 45.2 seconds left and made 6-of-7 at the free throw line in the final minute to preserve the win.
Not only did the Eagles have a hard time containing Reinhart, but junior guard Austin Holman added 14 points and junior guard Elliot Hoerdemann contributed eight points. Hester and junior guard Parker Goodlick (seven points) played solidly off the bench.
“They had us on our heels all night,” Frerichs said. “Their whole roster came back, and it showed. They showed who the more experienced team was.”
Goodlick scored all of his points in the second half, including two timely 3-pointers — one with less than two minutes in the second quarter that stretched the Saints’ lead to 48-39 and the other in the first minute of the fourth quarter to extend the Eagles’ deficit to 57-46.
“You get that kind of play out of your bench, and that’s pretty special,” Welch said. “Those guys work awfully hard, so it wasn’t really much of a surprise.”
Junior guard James Coleman added eight points off the bench for the Eagles while senior forward Greg Morrow (four points, 11 rebounds) contributed.
The Eagles finished 25-of-66 (38 percent) from the field and 9-of-23 (39 percent) from beyond the arc, but only made 5-of-11 (45 percent) at the free throw line.
Neither team turned the ball over much (RTHS had eight while BCC had 10), but the Saints’ 49 percent shooting from the field (26-of-53) and 68 percent shooting from the free throw line (15-of-22), coupled with an 8-of-22 performance (36 percent) from 3-point range made all the difference.
“Coming on the road in the Corn Belt, it’s very difficult to win a ballgame,” Welch said. “Rantoul’s got a good basketball team, and we were very fortunate to come out of here with a win.”
The Eagles should receive a lift this week with the return of junior guard Johnny Jones, the Eagles’ only returning starter from last year who was second on the team in scoring last season.
He missed the first five games because of an athletic code violation and missed Friday’s home opener because he was academically ineligible, but Frerichs said he expected Jones to play at Pontiac.
“We were right there (Friday),” Frerichs said. “We have three losses, and we’ve been in every game. We just can’t keep getting down on ourselves if our shots don’t fall. We’re going to bomb away. Some nights they’re not going to fall, but you’ve got to continue to play defense.”
Notes: After Friday’s game at Prairie Central, the Eagles will return home for a 7:30 p.m. Corn Belt Conference game next Tuesday against Eureka. It is the Eagles’ final home game until they play Stanford Olympia at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 8.
— The Eagles held a late fourth quarter lead at Monticello, but could not hang on for the nonconference victory. The Eagles trailed 22-15 at the end of the first quarter and 33-25 at halftime before taking a 43-40 lead into the fourth quarter.
Hardin led the Eagles with a team-high 15 points and added four assists while McLain added 13 points and six assists. Oliveras (12 points) and junior guard Devine Thompson (nine points) also chipped in offensively.