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Standing in the stairway above the Rantoul Township High School on Monday night, Jeff McKaufsky cracked open a side door.
“Man,” the RTHS girls basketball head coach said with a laugh while he loosened his tie and as a slight breeze trickled in, “it’s hot in here.”
Intense basketball atmospheres usually result in a cooling-down period shortly after games. RTHS found itself in one during its home opener, although the Eagles could not pull out a 61-59 victory against Pontiac in Corn Belt Conference play.
Even on an unusually warm December evening that had a little to do with the heat radiating off McKaufsky, it was more the highly intense and competitive action on the court that caused McKaufsky’s perspiration.
“They brought it,” McKaufsky said of his team. “Their attitudes were great. We worked as a team, and we’ve seen that coming the past few games. We’re starting to really work together, staying together and staying positive. It’s going to pay off. I told them there’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
The Eagles (5-4, 1-1 Corn Belt) had a two-game winning streak snapped.
RTHS won 45-22 at Fisher on Saturday and won 52-32 at Stanford Olympia on Nov. 27.
The Eagles — who are one win away from reaching last season’s win total — nearly pulled off a win against Pontiac (7-2, 2-0), which was coming off a win on Thursday at state-ranked Bloomington Central Catholic.
“Even though we lost, I definitely think that we made a statement,” RTHS senior forward Hannah Wascher said. “This game showed so much stuff that we have improved on. We have nothing to be disappointed in.”
RTHS will try to start a new winning streak at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at Normal U-High in Corn Belt action before returning home to play Eureka at 7:30 p.m. next Monday.
The Eagles received steady contributions from Wascher, sophomore guard Jasmine Riggs, senior forward Kalista Lutes and junior guard Christina Smith on Monday.
Wascher poured in a season-high 32 points and 16 rebounds. All this despite only making 6-of-12 free throws. The Eagles wound up 8-of-16 (50 percent) from the foul line.
“I could not make them,” Wascher said. “If I would have made my free throws, we would have won the game.”
Maybe so, but the Eagles aren’t in the game if not for Wascher’s strong presence inside.
She scored 22 of her points in the second half after RTHS went into halftime ahead 29-24.
After the Eagles forced a turnover, Wascher dribbled nearly the length of the court before finishing off a traditional three-point play that cut the Eagles’ deficit to 52-51 with 4:03 remaining.
Pontiac upped its lead to 57-53 with 2:28 left when guard Kelsey Walsberg (team-high 22 points) scored on a drive, but Wascher scored inside after a nice pass from sophomore guard Rachel Mullen to decrease Pontiac’s lead to 57-55 with 2:15 left.
Wascher made two free throws with 24.9 seconds left that shrank Pontiac’s lead to 59-57, but Indians forward Kaela Hodges (13 points) made both free throws with 14.9 seconds left to increase Pontiac’s lead to 61-57.
After Hodges made her first free throw, McKaufsky called the Eagles final timeout.
“I was thinking she might be more apt to miss the free throw by using the timeout,” McKaufsky said. “Us scoring twice in the last 14 seconds would have been tough anyway. I thought her (missing) the free throw and having one shot at the time was more likely.”
The Eagles came down and Lutes misfired on a jump shot, but the Eagles forced a steal that Wascher converted into a layup with three seconds left.
But with no timeouts to stop the clock, Pontiac did not have to inbound the ball before time ran out.
Riggs (10 points), Lutes (eight points, eight rebounds) and Smith (seven points) all played well to help the Eagles recover from an early 16-3 deficit midway through the first quarter. The Eagles answered with a 16-1 run and took a 19-17 lead on a jumper by Lutes with 4:30 left in the second quarter.
“I could tell the girls were jacked before the game,” McKaufsky said. “Playing eight road games, you want to get home and play in front of your fans.”
Pontiac’s 1-2-2 fullcourt press in the second half helped force 14 of the Eagles’ 25 turnovers they committed during the game, which allowed the Indians to whittle down their deficit. RTHS was 24-of-53 (45 percent) from the field and 3-of-9 (33 percent) from 3-point range.
The Indians were 23-of-54 for 43 percent from the field, 9-of-17 for 53 percent from the free throw line and 6-of-16 (38 percent) from 3-point range.
“We had a lot of people come out and just having that environment, it makes you want to have more of an aggressive attitude,” Wascher said. “It just pumps you up a lot more with that home atmosphere.”
Notes: After Thursday’s game at Normal U-High, the Eagles have the weekend off before returning at 7:30 p.m. next Monday to host Eureka.
— Wascher had 28 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots against Olympia. Sophomore forward Carson Church (nine points), senior forward Kimmy Schwartz (six points), Lutes (five points) and Smith (five assists) all contributed.