By Matt Nestor
It was not the first set of big games of the NIC-10 season so far, but it was the first big weekend in the conference as all of the top five teams in the conference squared off in different match-ups, which led to some separation in the standings.
Play started Friday night, Jan. 22, with Jefferson hosting Auburn and Boylan traveling to Freeport.
The J-Hawks overcame a slow start, and a foul-filled contest to extend a 10-point halftime lead into a 12-point win, topping the Knights 68-56.
Both teams started out struggling from the field, and it looked like it was going to be a low-scoring contest. Then, Jordan Hardy came in and took the game over.
Hardy came in firing for Jefferson, hitting his first six shots from the field, including three first-half 3-pointers, to help Jefferson push out to an 8-point lead after the first quarter and up by 10 at the half.
“I was just trying to play the game,” Hardy, who finished with a team-high 18 points, said of his hot start. “I have to do that every time. That’s what I come in for.”
Hardy wasn’t the only one playing inspired for the J-Hawks. Eight players in all scored for Jefferson in the game, and the J-Hawks shot a scorching 70 percent from the field in the first half, and 51 percent in the game.
Jefferson coach Todd Brannan said Hardy gave his team the spark it needed, but their depth and pressure helped them overcome foul trouble that led to 28 Auburn free-throw attempts.
“Hardy gave us a big lift coming off the bench,” Brannan said. “We got a lot of contributions from a lot of kids, and that’s kind of been our story all year. It’s not always one kid, and you never know who it is going to be. I’m really proud of our kids and the way they played tonight.”
While Auburn shot a lot of free throws, they were not able to take advantage, only making 16 of their attempts. To compound matters, Auburn fouls led to 31 Jefferson free-throw attempts.
While the J-Hawks struggled to convert one-and-ones early in the fourth quarter, the Knights couldn’t take advantage, allowing Mario Manns and the rest of the J-Hawks to attack the offensive glass and keep possessions alive.
“When they missed their free throws, we failed to box out time and time again,” Auburn coach Bryan Ott said. “The free throws themselves wasn’t an issue, not rebounding the missed free throws is the issue. They outplayed us physically, and that’s the worst way to lose a basketball game.”
For the J-Hawks, it was the first time beating Auburn after losing 10 straight games to the Knights. They were able to do so thanks to Mershon Wilkes, who was 9-10 from the free-throw line, including making his last four to help put the game away.
“He’s a senior, he’s a guard and the ball is in his hands a lot,“ Brannan said of Wilkes, who finished with 15 points. “We really needed him to hit those free throws, and he got it done for us tonight. We got the loose balls. We were really ready for these guys.”
The J-Hawks followed up that win with a 72-46 victory over Harlem the following night. Wilkes led the way for Jefferson with 18 points against the Huskies, who picked up a win the previous night over East behind 21 points from Alex Ghinazzi.
The Knights, meanwhile, moved on to face the Hononegah Indians, who had cruised the previous evening to a 73-47 victory against Belvidere.
The Knights, who would have fallen to fourth and three games behind first-place Boylan, were able to pull into a third-place tie with the Indians by topping them 57-53, overcoming a 5-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
Following one of their worst shooting nights of the season against Jefferson, the Knights came out struggling again against Hononegah, and found themselves down by 3 early. Then, sophomore Fred Van Vleet picked up back-to-back steals, leading to easy Auburn baskets that would set the tone for the rest of the night defensively.
“(Van Vleet) had some critical steals, no doubt,” Ott said of his sophomore point guard. “Normally, he’s very aggressive, and he leads us in steals. It was important for him from a pride factor and personal reasons to step up and be the leader he needs to be.”
The Indians didn’t go away, however. Led by Chase Robinson, who scored 19 points on 9-13 shooting, Hononegah fought back and after a quick basket to start the fourth quarter, found themselves ahead 39-34.
But the Knights responded again defensively, picking up critical steals, leading to several easy baskets for J.D. Danforth, who finished with 16 points after scoring 19 against Jefferson. Most importantly, the Knights were able to contain the Indians’ leading scorer, Stanley Moore, at the end.
“The two kids we had guarding Stanley Moore, Lamark Foote and Chris Harvey, did a tremendous job defensively. We needed to make it so somebody else would beat us,” Ott said of his team’s defensive effort. “I thought the whole team raised its level of play defensively against a really good foe. It would have been easy for us to hang our heads when they went up 5 at the start of the fourth quarter. The whole team raised its level there.”
When play was over for the weekend, Boylan, who defeated Freeport 57-43, improved their record to 8-0 in the conference to keep a lead over second-place Jefferson, who is 8-1. Auburn and Hononegah both find themselves two games behind at 6-2.
Freeport, who entered the weekend in fifth place, dropped their second game of the weekend to Belvidere North to fall to 3-6, and now sits a half game behind the Blue Thunder, Harlem and Guilford at 3-5.
The Vikings picked up two conference wins, topping Belvidere North and Belvidere over the weekend. That leaves the Bucs at 1-8 in the conference, ahead of East, who has yet to win a game in the conference despite several close calls.
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From the Jan. 27-Feb 2, 2010