20-point second-half comeback falls short, Fisher cites sluggish start as key downfall

EL PASO —  For a little less than five minutes, Friday night’s Heart of Illinois Conference opener between Fisher and El Paso-Gridley became the Jaden Jones-Watkins show.

Trailing 46-27 with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter, Fisher’s senior point guard took over.

Jones-Watkins nailed back-to-back 3-pointers, missed a pair of free throws, but then drilled another one from downtown to cut the Titans’ lead to 11. After the Bunnies’ Dawson Purvis pulled down an offensive board, he fed the ball to Ryan Meents, who converted a reverse layup as the final seconds of the period began to evaporate.

Fisher’s fourth quarter got jump-started by a terrific cross-court pass from Jones-Watkins to Dalton Burk on a fast-break attempt, and the junior sank a layup in traffic while getting fouled before completing the 3-point at the free throw line.

Jones-Watkins then sank yet another 3-pointer, Purvis converted a putback layup, and Burk drained a high-arcing 2-point jumper from the baseline to cut the Bunnies’ deficit to 49-48 with six minutes remaining.

Burk’s shot, which looked like a 3-pointer but was called a two, capped a 21-3 run from the 2:10 mark of the third quarter to the 6:00 mark of the fourth. But it still wasn’t enough for Fisher, which also trailed 41-21 in the third, to complete a big comeback in front of a loud, traveling pro-Bunnies crowd.

“I think as a team we just came out slow, and I kind of felt like as a leader I needed to try and spark something,” Jones-Watkins said. “I got a couple shots to fall and started feeling hot so I just kept shooting. The team was feeding off it, but it just wasn’t enough.”

Sluggish starts have become a trend for the Bunnies (4-1), who were coming off a season-opening championship at the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Thanksgiving Tournament.

“That’s happened all year, really, but this was the first time it’s resulted in a loss,” Jones-Watkins said. “The whole season we’ve come out slow, and once we get the taste of (a potential) loss, then we want to fight back. We’ve just got to come out better from the beginning and play with energy. It starts with defense. If we’re sluggish on defense, it translates to offense. I feel like our offense is never that bad, but when our defense is bad it just translates over.”

“We came out, and (EPG) just wanted it more,” Fisher coach Cody Diskin said. “They worked harder than us. I’ve always said this group of guys loves to win and hates to lose. They’ve just got to realize that a little earlier and not get buried. It’s not the first time through these first five games where we’ve got down kind of big, and they battled back. We just need to make sure we come out and want it more and work harder from the start so we don’t put ourselves in that situation.”

Jones-Watkins, who finished with 18 points, and Diskin each credited Purvis and Andrew Zook for setting key screens to help free up the senior guard while also acknowledging a solid game from Ryan Meents (17 points).

But the Bunnies’ lack of size was a key factor in the loss, as EPG fed 6-5 sophomore Jack Weber (18 points) and 6-3 senior Aaron Steiner (16 points) in the post all night with no answer from Fisher.

“We knew we were going to have trouble with rebounding and defensive post play, and you’ve got to give credit to them,” Diskin said. “Jack Weber and (Steiner) I thought played a great game. They’re strong, young kids, and we’ve got to work on defending that a little better.”

“They looked good,” Jones-Watkins said of the Titans. “I just don’t think we match up with them really well personnel-wise. That definitely hurt us, but they looked good.”

The Bunnies faced LeRoy in another HOIC contest Tuesday night in a rematch of a 56-53 Fisher win on Nov. 25. Results were not available at press time.

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

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