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RANTOUL — With 9.8 seconds left of a tight, pressure-packed game, Duck Gibson let out a smile as Rantoul’s boys basketball team held a 74-71 lead over Unity on Tuesday night.
Gibson was stepping up to the free throw line to try and hit the two biggest shots of the game for the Eagles to put some extra cushion between them and the Rockets.
Despite the tension right before attempting to ice the game, Gibson seemed loose — due to some ribbing from Unity’s JT Wheeler, who finished with a game-high 35 points.
“Me and JT, we’re real (good) buddies. He said, ‘If you miss this one, I’m hitting it from half court. I’m letting you know now,’” Gibson said with a laugh. “A little talking trash back and forth.”
Gibson, who poured in a career-high 31 points, nailed both free throws and, after a Unity layup at the other end, made one of two at the line with less than three seconds left as Rantoul escaped with a 77-73 win over its Okaw Valley Conference rival.
The senior guard was the lone bright spot on an otherwise dismal night for the Eagles.
“Duck hit some big shots when we needed them,” Eagles coach Brett Frerichs said. “He was doing it on both ends for us. He was the leader we needed in that fourth quarter. Without those shots, we wouldn’t finish this conference undefeated.”
Despite the win that pushed the Eagles (19-6, 7-0 OVC) to their eighth straight win, smiles did not abound for either Gibson or his coach following the performance.
With a smoking hot Thornton Fractional North team (19-3) that has won nine straight coming into town on Saturday night, both Gibson and Frerichs know that another performance like Tuesday’s will leave the Eagles with a blowout loss.
“If we play like (we did Tuesday) we’ll lose by 50 (to T.F. North), and we’ll probably lose Friday and lose by 40 to Danville on Monday,” Frerichs said. “It’s just frustrating because we’re better than that. … Right now, we just don’t have any pride in our defense.”
“To be honest, we played horrible. I’m not going to beat around the bush. We played horrible,” Gibson said. “We’ve got to come back and practice hard. We can’t play around in practice.”
For now, though, the Eagles can at least celebrate a relieving win over the Rockets (9-12, 2-6) that kept them unbeaten in their last 17 conference games.
The fourth quarter, in which Gibson and Wheeler each scored 15 points, featured six lead changes as both squads — and, more specifically, Gibson and Wheeler — duked it out.
Gibson sliced into the middle of the lane and laid a finger roll into the cup for a 59-58 lead with 4:45 left before the Rockets took it back with a pair of free throws.
Gibson then buried a 3-pointer for a 62-60 lead with 4:15 remaining, and the Eagles never trailed the rest of the way.
Nursing a 65-62 lead with 3:30 to go in the period, Frerichs got a bit unorthodox for his fast-paced team. He instructed Gibson to stand just a few feet in front of half court and dribble the ball in a “delay” strategy that helped Rantoul milk the clock.
The point guard pounded the rock for over a minute and half before initiating the offense, and he eventually splashed a three with 1:50 left to open up a six-point advantage.
Wheeler answered back, though, with a four-point play to cut the deficit to 68-67 with 1:11 remaining.
But Gibson calmly walked to the free throw line time and again in the last 45 seconds, sinking 7-of-8 free throws, and the Eagles survived.
“Honestly, I told them there’s really nothing to be happy about tonight,” Frerichs said. “We took a couple steps back in every phase of the game. We played like we practiced yesterday. It’s unacceptable at this time of year.”
The Eagles, who committed 15 turnovers, allowed a Rockets team which they had beaten handily 67-52 on Jan. 27 to stick around the entire night.
Unity jumped out to a 15-4 lead early in the first quarter behind some hot shooting, and the Rockets held a 35-27 lead at halftime.
Nine Rockets turnovers in the third period helped the Eagles take a 51-48 lead into the final quarter. But Frerichs was still not happy with any part of his team’s effort.
“It was embarrassing to watch that game,” Frerichs added. “It felt like we were playing the first game of the year. Like I said, it’s just unacceptable. We’re not going to have more success the rest of the season if we play like we did tonight. … It was a disappointing win. I told them there was nothing to be happy about, and we have to come back to practice and work.”
The Eagles travel to Knightstown, Ind., on Friday for a battle with St. Thomas More in the last conference game of the season.
The game will be held at historic “Hoosier Gym,” the main location for the 1986 basketball movie “Hoosiers.”