ROCK FALLS – The signature of a Brad Bickett team is the ability to ratchet up the defensive pressure at different times for different purposes.
Saturday night against Sycamore in the finale of the Rock Falls Shootout, it wasn’t steals the Rockets were after when they picked up their full-court pressure a notch down the stretch.
Instead, the intent was to disrupt the rhythm the Spartans’ offense had found in the waning moments of the third quarter.
The defensive change worked to perfection, as Rock Falls rallied for a 57-50 victory at Tabor Gym.
“We do that to change the tempo, just disrupt and annoy and be a nuisance for the opposing offense,” Bickett said. “I felt we were too content in our half-court defense, and they were hitting shots. So we went to the ‘Iowa’ press, and the guys played it with reckless abandon. It was definitely one of the big keys to the victory.”
The other was the Rockets’ playmaking. Several players stepped into the spotlight at various times throughout the game, from Jace Anderson hitting back-to-back deep 3-pointers in the first quarter, to Austin Donoho providing a second-quarter spark off the bench; from Alex Leaf running the point efficiently and wreaking havoc on defense to Steven Armoska controlling the paint in the third quarter.
But the final guy who took that role was senior Eddie Nelson. His 3 off an Austin Babcock skip pass to start the fourth quarter brought Rock Falls (12-4) to within 44-43, and his second 3 from the right corner after an effective shot-fake with 4:13 to play gave the Rockets the lead for good.
“I’ve been waiting for those to fall,” Nelson said, “and it was a lot of fun to get my turn to knock down some big shots.”
“That’s the neat thing about this team,” Bickett added, “is that we’re so balanced and everybody gets after it so hard. Every night it’s a different player stepping up and contributing and making big plays that make all the difference.”
Nelson’s second 3 was part of an 8-0 run that turned a 47-45 deficit into a 53-47 lead in 90 seconds. Armoska followed with a layup off a strong drive to the bucket, and Leaf capped the run with a coast-to-coast layup after he nabbed a steal near midcourt.
Sycamore (9-7) managed just six shot attempts in the final quarter – making only two – while turning the ball over seven times.
“The big difference was we stopped making good passes and got careless with the basketball,” Sycamore coach Andrew Stacy said. “Our Achilles’ heel this year has been shooting ourselves in the foot, and we have to find a way to eliminate those bad plays. Bottom line: they made plays down the stretch and we didn’t, and it’s tough because it was a great back-and-forth game until the last half of the last quarter.”
Anderson’s deep 3s tied the score at 15 late in the first quarter, then Babcock’s wide-open layup and Donoho’s back-to-back baskets put the Rockets up 24-20 midway through the second period. But consecutive 3s by Sycamore’s Kyle Buzzard and a late post basket by Scott Nelson gave the Spartans a 31-28 lead at halftime.
Trailing 35-30 early in the third, Connor Olson hit a 3, then Armoska hit Babcock on a baseline cut for a layup before scoring off Nelson’s baseline dribble-drive-dish for a 37-35 Rock Falls lead. But three straight 3s by David Compher gave Sycamore its largest lead of the game at 44-37 with 1:04 to play in the period.
Armoska answered by putting back his own miss, then splitting a pair of free throws to close out the quarter, then Nelson’s first 3 brought the Rockets to within 44-43 a half-minute into the fourth.
That’s when Rock Falls’ defense took over.
“We wanted to force them into quicker shots,” Eddie Nelson said, “and not give them clear looks at the basket. That’s when things swung our way.”
“We were flying around and gambling on defense for most of the game,” Leaf added, “and they were hitting shots. At the end, we stayed more under control, started hitting the floor on every loose ball, and had a lot of guys getting their jerseys dirty on 50-50 balls. That made the difference down the stretch.”
Armoska led the Rockets with 13 points, six rebounds, five steals and three blocks, and he also dished a pair of assists. Anderson, Leaf and Olson scored eight each, with Olson grabbing six boards and Leaf adding five steals, four rebounds and three assists. Nelson had seven points, Babcock finished with six points and two assists, and Donoho chipped in five points, three assists and a pair of steals.
Devin Mottet’s double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds paced the Spartans, and he also had a team-high three assists. Scott Nelson added 13 points and two steals, Buzzard finished with eight points and two assists, and Ben Niemann had five points, five rebounds and two assists. Compher chipped in nine points and two steals before being ejected with 4.8 seconds to play after his fifth personal foul and second intentional foul.
Rock Falls Shootout
Rock Falls 57, Sycamore 50
Star of the game: Steven Armoska, RF, 13 points, 6 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 blocks, 2 assists
Key performers: Alex Leaf, RF, 8 points, 5 steals, 4 rebounds, 3 assists; Connor Olson, RF, 8 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists; Devin Mottet, Sycamore, 15 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists; Scott Nelson, Sycamore, 13 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals
Up next: Oregon at Rock Falls, 7:15 Tuesday