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It was close.
For a quarter.
But then a junior from the Normal U-High boys basketball team started to take control, and the Rantoul Township High School boys basketball team had no answer en route to a 73-49 home loss on Friday night to the Pioneers.
Except it wasn’t the junior who most people came out to see that changed the game in the RTHS main gymnasium between the two Corn Belt Conference schools.
Yes, junior forward and Ohio State commit Keita Bates-Diop had some dazzling moments with a team-high 23 points to go along with eight rebounds and four steals.
“I thought I was able to get my hands on a lot of plays with a lot of steals and tips,” Bates-Diop said. “That just helped my team.”
But junior Kane Wildermuth hurt the Eagles inside during a key second quarter run by Normal U-High (12-4, 7-0 Corn Belt) that allowed the visitors to separate themselves from the Eagles.
The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Eagles (8-10, 2-5) after they opened last week with a 76-63 home win against Stanford Olympia on Jan. 8.
RTHS tried to start a new winning streak on Tuesday night at home against nonconference opponent Charleston, (results were unavailable at press time.)
RTHS returns to Corn Belt play at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Bloomington Central Catholic.
“If we cut down on the turnovers during the game and boxed out more, it would have been really close,” RTHS junior guard Johnny Jones said. “We had a good crowd that gave me the energy, and I just wanted to beat them so bad, man, and keep our winning streak going.”
RTHS junior guard Josh Oliveras drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 minutes, 31 seconds remaining in the second quarter to cut the U-High lead to 16-15 before Wildermurth went to work inside.
The 6-foot-6-inch, 215-pound center had 10 points and six rebounds (five offensive rebounds) on the night, and scored eight of those points during a 13-2 run by U-High that extended the Pioneers’ lead to 29-18 with 3:21 left before halfitme.
“When Kane asserts himself, it’s hard to stop him,” U-High head coach Bob Fitzgerald said. “He’s coming along. During the small amount of time he played before he got in foul trouble, he was dominant inside and a good force for us.”
Along with the play of Bates-Diop — who finished with four dunks — Wildermuth and his twin brother, 6-5 junior forward Malik Wildermuth (11 points) were key complementary parts to a solid U-High attack. The Pioneers return many players off last year’s team that went unbeaten in the Corn Belt before placing second in the state in Class 2A.
“They’re very talented,” RTHS head coach Brett Frerichs said. “They’re physical. They can shoot the ball. And they’re very long on the defensive end. 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.”
Aside from the height Bates-Diop (he’s 6-8) and the Wildermuth brothers present, U-High also had steady games from senior guard Nick Schroeder (10 points) and junior guard Joe Johnson (nine points).
With the Eagles trailing 29-20 and less than three minutes left until halftime, a turnover by the Eagles — one of 24 in the game for RTHS — kickstarted an 11-2 run by the Pioneers to close out the first half and send U-High into halftime up 40-22.
The turnover woes and a struggle to hit 3-pointers — the Eagles went 5-of-21 (24 percent) from beyond the arc — did not help the Eagles in a chance to pull off the upset.
“We’re averaging close to nine threes a game,” Frerichs said. “We knew coming in we’d have to hit close to double digits from three to have a chance, but their 1-3-1 (zone) really changed the game. We were moving the ball and attacking against their man, but then we didn’t attack the zone like we had in practice, and it’s hard to simulate a 1-3-1 zone like they do with our guys.”
Jones was aggressive all game long and wound up with a game-high 26 points. He kept RTHS in the game during the first quarter when he scored 10 of the Eagles’ 12 points as they trailed 16-12.
“We didn’t play real well in the first quarter,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought with the man-to-man we were a little sluggish. The Jones kid did a really good job getting some penetration to fluster us a little bit.”
Frerichs has seen Jones play like that before. Now he just wants to see it on a nightly basis.
“He’s the one guy that’s been in this situation,” Frerichs said. “He had a real good game against them last year. He’s one of the best point guards around, in my opinion. He’s too up and down right now, but he definitely belonged on the court. He was pretty special, but he didn’t have a lot of help to go around.”
The Eagles were without junior guard Tanner McLain (flu), and senior forward Weylin Williams had the next highest scoring output with six points. Junior guard Talon Hardin — who came into the game averaging 13.7 points — only had four points.
“We made a lot of mistakes that you just can’t make against a great team,” Frerichs said. “It’s very demoralizing. We just don’t value our offensive possessions with the turnovers, and we had some very quick shots that were bad shots.”
Even with a solid crowd and the RTHS student section trying to get in Bates-Diop’s head — at one point chanting “ILL-INI” since the Normal native didn’t choose his home state university — the Pioneers didn’t get rattled.
Bates-Diop erupted in the third quarter with 11 points as U-High extended its lead even further, to 55-33 with 2:41 left after Bates-Diop converted a traditional three-point play.
“We made some adjustments and played probably the best second and third quarters I’ve seen us play all year,” Fitzgerald said. “The thing about Keita is he’s a quiet player. 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. We won, and he scored a lot, so I’d give him a pretty good grade.”
The Pioneers shot 41 percent from the field (28-of-68), including 4-of-22 (18 percent) from 3-point range, and made 13-of-16 (81 percent) at the foul line while committing 17 turnovers. The Eagles only shot 31 percent (15-of-49) from the field and finished 14-of-19 (74 percent) at the foul line.
The two schools will tangle again on Friday, Feb. 15, at Normal U-High in the final Corn Belt Conference game of the season for both teams.
RTHS will have one more year after this season of tangling with Bates-Diop and Co. before the Eagles make the move to the Okaw Valley Conference after the 2013-14 school year.
“It’s scary on one hand, but again it’s great to have him in our conference,” Frerichs said of Bates-Diop. “Guys look forward to playing him, and it’s good to have a player of his caliber in our conference. He’s a great kid. I would rather play him and U-High because of the challenge. It’s fun figuring out how you’re going to try to stop him even if you can’t really stop him.”
Notes: After Friday’s game at Bloomington Central Catholic, the Eagles will return home for a 7:30 p.m. game next Tuesday against Corn Belt opponent Pontiac. Pontiac owns a 59-43 win against RTHS when the two teams played on Dec. 4 in Pontiac.
— In the win against Olympia, Jones led RTHS with 19 points while junior guard Devine Thompson (12 points), junior guard James Coleman (10 points), Hardin (nine points) and McLain (seven points) all chipped in. RTHS led 23-12 at the end of the first quarter, 45-31 at halftime and 70-48 to start the fourth quarter.