DIXON – Russ Damhoff didn't see it, but he was impressed when he heard about the poise his team showed down the stretch.
Coming into their home game on a five-game losing streak, Damhoff's Sauk Valley Skyhawks snapped that skid – but, as in their recent slide, they made things interesting.
Sauk built leads of 21 points in the first half and 20 in the second, then withstood a frantic Black Hawk East rally for an 86-79 Arrowhead Conference win.
And, for the first time in his 28 seasons as a head coach, Damhoff didn't get to see the finish. His second technical foul came with 1:07 to play and his team up 81-75. After yelling for nearly 20 seconds for a timeout, he was finally granted one by the official … and he showed his frustration – which had been building all game – by jumping a few steps into the crowd and shaking the support pole in the aisle.
"I was proud of how my guys responded, but not as much how I did," said Damhoff, who now must miss Thursday's game at Carl Sandburg. "I didn't see the poise in the final minute, but I heard about it … and it sounded good.
"We played well at times, then at other times we didn't take care of the basketball. But we needed a win, and we got one against a team that was 4-0 in conference coming in."
Sauk (10-10, 2-3) played from ahead the whole game, taking a 7-5 lead on Jeff Casseus' three-point play 2:15 into the game and never trailing again. The game plan early on was finding Casseus in the low post for a few possessions, then knocking down open shots or driving to the basket when the defense started to collapse on him.
"This team loves playing inside-out, and that's what we wanted to do tonight," said Casseus, who was 8-for-9 from the floor with 17 points. "But they started switching on our screens, and that made it easier for our guards to get to the basket or get open shots. We shot the ball really well, and that makes it easier to get in a good flow."
Sauk shot 18-for-30 from the floor (60 percent) and 10-for-11 from the free-throw line for the first half, and a 10-minute stretch without a turnover in the first half keyed a 22-1 run.
That gave the Skyhawks a 37-16 lead with 6 minutes left before halftime, and their confidence was brimming over.
"We had to come out and play mad, because that's when we play better," point guard Carlos Hendrix said. "We've been struggling to put away games, so we stressed coming out and starting fast, then just controlling the ball and keeping calm when they made their runs at us."
The first was an 11-4 burst by the Warriors (11-10, 4-1) over the final 3 minutes of the first half, cutting the Sauk lead to 48-36 at the break.
Then, after Sauk opened the second half with a 14-6 run to build the lead back to 20 (62-42) with 14 minutes to play, Black Hawk East went to work again.
Things started to unravel for the Skyhawks when Damhoff received his first technical, after it appeared the officials missed a 3-second call in the lane by the Warriors' Torrance Evans. Evans not only made a bank shot on that possession, he then hit both free throws, then buried a 3-pointer on the next Black Hawk East possession.
That kick-started a 15-2 run that got the Warriors to within seven (64-57) with 10:46 to play. It was the closest they'd been since the 10-minute mark of the first half.
"We finally picked up our defense a little, and got them out of rhythm on offense," Black Hawk East coach Chance Jones said. "But they played with a lot of poise tonight, and it seemed like every time we'd get close, they'd hit a shot or make some free throws.
"We made some mistakes when we could've taken over that game, and give Sauk credit, because they made us pay for them."
A fast-break layup by Casseus and an aggressive drive to the bucket by Chris Stovall gave the Skyhawks a 79-67 lead with 4:25 to go, and it seemed as if Sauk had restored order.
But the Warriors had one last surge in them.
Saeed Soulemand's coast-to-coast layup off a steal started the burst, and his two free throws with 1:53 brought Black Hawk East to within four (79-75) with 1:53 to go.
But Hendrix hit a tear-drop floater on the baseline to stop the spurt, then he and Jacob Fisher combined to hit five of six free throws over the final 1:05 to seal the victory.
"We know teams are always going to make runs at us," Fisher said, "and we just have to make sure we make ours when it really counts. The ball's not always going to bounce our way, but we stuck together as a team tonight, even with Coach not there, and got things back under control in time for a big win."
Hendrix finished with team highs of 21 points, eight assists and three steals for the Skyhawks, while Casseus added nine rebounds to his 17 points. Chris Fritsch had 13 points and five boards, Fisher finished with 10 points and six rebounds, and Stovall dished five assists and nabbed two steald to go with his four points. David Newton, Tramel Rideout, and John Murphy scored six points each, with Murphy grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots, and Rideout pulling down six boards.
Sauk shot 32-for-60 from the field (53.3 percent) and 18-for-21 from the foul line (85.7 percent), and assisted on half of its made baskets. That, in addition to a 49-26 rebounding edge, helped overcome 23 turnovers.
Evans led all scorers with 29 points, and he nabbed three steals for Black Hawk East. Mile Nettles added 19 points, Devonte Loggins finished with eight points and a team-high six rebounds, and Soulemand chipped in nine points, five rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
Sauk Valley 86, Black Hawk East 79
Star of the game: Carlos Hendrix, Sauk, 21 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds, 3 steals
Key performers: Jeff Casseus, Sauk, 17 points, 8-for-9 FGs, 9 rebounds; Torrance Evans, BHE, 29 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists; Miles Nettles, BHE, 19 points, 2 assists
Up next: Sauk Valley at Carl Sandburg, 7:30 p.m. Thursday