DIXON – The Sauk Valley Skyhawks women's basketball team had been stewing over their last loss for quite some time – 24 days, to be exact.
So it was no surprise that the Skyhawks came out fired up for their Arrowhead Conference opener against Illinois Valley on Thursday evening. Sauk opened both halves with big runs, and was never really threatened in a 73-35 victory at home.
But there was another underlying motivator for keeping the intensity up for a full 40 minutes.
"Coach really stays on us, and we always want to keep him happy," freshman Aleena Hammelman said of Jed Johnson. "He fires us up, always wants us to work hard and get better, and we wanted to do a good job tonight so practice doesn't suck tomorrow."
The Skyhawks (10-2, 1-0) opened the game on a 13-0 run, and stretched the first-half lead to 31-14 inside the final 2 minutes. After IVCC scored the final five points of the first half, then opened the second half with a 3-pointer from Jessica Jessen, the Eagles (5-7, 0-1) were within nine (31-22).
That was as close as they would get. Sauk scored 19 of the next 22 points, grabbing a 50-27 lead with 8 minutes to play.
"I was probably a little hard on them at halftime," Johnson said, "but I thought we were giving them too many open shots. We preached all week, limit their open looks, and I was happy with the way we did that in the second half.
"I told the girls before the game that if they weren't motivated to play this game, there was an issue. We hadn't played in a while, and they got out there and got after it."
The Skyhawks' defense was suffocating all game long. Sauk forced 23 turnovers and nabbed 18 steals, and held the Eagles to 23.3 percent shooting from the field (14-for-60), and 18.8 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (6-for-32).
The second-half stretch that saw Sauk put the game away included a 10-minute, 47-second scoreless stretch by IVCC.
"We knew they were all shooters, so we wanted to make sure we kept a hand in their faces at all times, rotate in our zone and keep talking," Hammleman said. "We forced them to take some tough shots, and our girls inside did a great job rebounding tonight, especially on the defensive end."
The Skyhawks finished with a 56-31 edge on the boards, and three girls – Hammelman, Jordan Giddings, and Autumn Smith – finished with at least a dozen rebounds. Sauk also turned their 20 offensive boards into points, outscoring the Eagles 20-3 in second-chance points.
"We weren't even focused on the offense," Giddings said. "It was all about our defense, and turning that into offense. We had so many steals up top, it was easy for us posts; we'd run to half court and then be able to turn around and go back on defense again.
"That really builds your confidence, and it's also relaxing at the same time. When you're getting easy points, you don't really feel any pressure."
The Skyhawks had runs of 31-14 in the first half and 31-8 in the second half, and spread the scoring around. Giddings had 21 points, 13 rebounds and three steals, while Sheldeen Joseph added 11 points, six steals and five assists. Hammelman finished with nine points, 12 rebounds, five steals, two assists and two blocks, while Sarah Matson chipped in three 3-pointers and 13 points, all in the second half.
Morgan Dean had nine points and two assists, Smith scored eight points and grabbed 12 boards, and Jaimie Hurd had four steals and two assists to go with two points.
"It's so huge for us to get out to big leads like that," Hammelman said, "and we know that we have so many girls who can get the job done, no matter what we need from them."
Jessen led IVCC with 17 points and two steals, while Kayla MacDavitt added four points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. Mia Porter had six points, two assists and two steals, and Kara Kistenfeger chipped in four rebounds, three assists and two points.
Sauk Valley 73, Illinois Valley 35
Star of the game: Jordan Giddings, Sauk, 21 points, 13 rebounds, 3 steals
Key performers: Aleena Hammelman, Sauk, 9 points, 12 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 assists, 2 blocks; Sheldeen Joseph, Sauk, 11 points, 6 steals, 5 assists; Jessica Jessen, IVCC, 17 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals
Up next: Kennedy-King at Sauk Valley, 5 p.m. Saturday