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Throughout the summer, the preseason practices and during the season, Brett Frerichs kept mentioning one boys basketball team stood above the rest in the Corn Belt Conference.
The Rantoul Township High School head coach had ample reason to think so.
The Pioneers placed second in state in Class 2A last winter.
They won the Corn Belt last year with a 14-0 league record.
And they have Ohio State commit forward Keita-Bates Diop. The 6-foot-8-inch forward is one of the top juniors in the country.
After Friday night, Frerichs still mentions one team that stands out in the eight-school conference.
The host Eagles never led in a 73-49 loss that snapped a four-game winning streak for Frerichs' squad.
"They're very talented. They're physical. They can shoot the ball. And they're very long on the defensive end," Frerichs said. "They gave us all kinds of headaches with their 1-3-1 (zone), and their experience. Like I told the guys, they were playing last year in the state championship game, and most of our guys were playing (junior varsity). You throw that experience in with all that talent, they're a tough team."
Normal U-High — which was playing its first game since a 30-point loss last Saturday at Chicago Morgan Park, the state's top-ranked Class 3A squad — put away RTHS late in the second quarter.
With the Eagles trailing 29-20 and less than three minutes before halftime, the Pioneers (12-4, 7-0 Corn Belt) ended the first half on an 11-2 run to go up 40-22 at the break.
They did this mostly with Bates-Diop (23 points, eight rebounds and four steals) on the bench with two fouls.
Bates-Diop — who finished with four dunks on the night — did most of his work in the third quarter with 11 points before U-High head coach Bob Fitzgerald pulled him with 5:07 left in the game and the Pioneers leading 65-37.
"The thing about Keita is he's a quiet player," Fitzgerald said. "He's going to put up 20, and you're not going to know about it because he's not a ball hog and he's not stingy. He works within the offense."
RTHSl junior guard Johnny Jones led all scorers with 26 points, but the Eagles (8-10, 2-5) did not have another player reach double figures.
Senior forward Weylin Williams added six points.
"We had the intensity, but they're just big," Jones said. "We weren't rebounding good, and we came out with too many turnovers. They're long. They take up half our court."
RTHS turned the ball over 24 times and only finished shooting 15-of-49 (31 percent) from the field, including 5-of-21 (24 percent) from three-point range.
The game was tied twice in the first quarter, and the Eagles only trailed 16-15 in the first minute of the second quarter after a three-pointer by junior guard Josh Oliveras before Normal U-High steadily pulled away.
And for any Illinois fans hoping Bates-Diop will renege on his commitment to the Buckeyes, don't count on it.
He left the visiting locker room at RTHS wearing a scarlet and grey Ohio State stocking hat.
"I was comfortable and I was ready to (commit)," Bates-Diop said of his decision, which came shortly before Thanksgiving. "I didn't want to lead any schools on. I didn't want to disrespect them in any way, so I wanted to make my decision and let the other schools plan on finding other players."