ROCK FALLS – Cade Nailor wore his new black eye like a badge of honor, a distinction he earned being the main defender against Dixon scoring dynamo Beau Bailey for most of Saturday night at Tabor Gymnasium.
Nailor – along with the rest of the Rock Falls defenders – hounded Bailey for most of the night, limiting him to 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting as the Rockets beat the Dukes 58-52 in a closely-contested Big Northern battle.
“You have to trust your teammates that if you get beat, you need help to slide over,” Nailor said. “It took a lot of energy on defense, which took away some of my offense.”
Just a week earlier, Geneseo’s Isaiah Rivera scored 40 against Rock Falls (5-1, 2-0 Big Northern) at the Leafs’ Thanksgiving tournament, and despite the Rockets’ 74-67 win in that game, Brad Bickett challenged the integrity of his team for who wanted to be a defensive stopper. It was a wake-up call Nailor and other Rock Falls players needed.
“Beau is just a freak. He’s such a great player who can do so many things,” Bickett said. “He’s as good as it gets. We talked to Cade about being committed. He did a great job on a kid who can flat-out score. He was a beast.”
With the game tied at 50 with 2 minutes to go, Rock Falls junior Dylan Leaf took charge.
“He’s been playing since his freshman year,” Bickett said. “We have high expectations for him.
“I want him to have the ball in his hands late in the game, and we’ll start everything with him” Bickett added. “I thought he did a great job. It’s a growing process.”
Serving as the Rockets’ main ball-handler, Leaf drilled four straight free throws in the final 25 seconds, and took a charge on Dixon’s Derian Duncan with 8.2 ticks left and the Rockets leading 56-52.
“Every time I take a free throw, I take a deep breath and try to zone everybody out,” Leaf said, “just focus on knocking it down.”
Bailey drained two free throws to tie the game for a first time at 48-all with 2:16 remaining, and Keenan Beard’s free throws knotted the game again at 50.
Nailor and Kyle Ellefsen each nailed a pair of free throws for a 54-50 Rockets lead, but Duncan drilled a jumper on the other end to make things interesting.
Gabe Sohn opened the fourth quarter by splitting a pair of free throws, then Bailey swiped a steal off an inbounds pass and laid it in to cut the Rockets’ lead to 41-40. Dixon stayed within striking distance for most of the game, as Oscar Van Sickle’s jumper pulled the Dukes to within four, 41-37, after the third quarter.
“That’s our identity from last year that’s carried over. We’re never out of it,” Dixon coach Nick Oraham said. “The kids are going to fight to the end, and I’m proud of the way they did that.”
Dixon (3-2, 0-1) hit its first two shots of the game, but the Rockets ripped off seven straight points to lead 8-5 lead with 4:42 left in first, highlighted by a turnaround jumper on the baseline by Leaf.
Payton Lawrence’s second steal of the quarter tied things up at 11 for the Dukes. However, Austin Meiners drilled a 3 to give him eight points in the opening quarter, and Leaf made an acrobatic layup off glass to give the Rockets a 16-13 lead after one.
“They made shots from the perimeter early on, crushed us on the offensive glass, and won the 50/50 balls in the first half,” Oraham said. “We were right there, and then had a couple of defensive lapses that made it go the other way.”
A Leaf 3, and a layup and putback by Nailor to start the second gave Rock Falls its only double-digit lead of the contest at 23-13 just a minute into the quarter. A jumper by Bailey stopped the run, and Van Sickle’s third 3 and Bailey’s tough runner cut the Dukes’ deficit to 27-23 with 1:40 to go before halftime. Leaf swiped a steal for a bucket, and Duncan’s three-point play made it 31-26 Rockets at intermission.
Leaf led all scorers with 20 points, adding four rebounds, three assists and three steals. Meiners finished with 11 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals, while Nailor had 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals for Rock Falls. Keyon Wolber pitched in nine points.
“A win like this against a good team like that is great for our record, and for later on when it comes to regional seeding,” Leaf said. “It’s also huge to start out in conference looking toward a conference championship and going into our holiday tournaments.”
Bailey added six rebounds and two steals to go with his team-high 15 points. Van Sickle had 11 points, six rebounds and two assists for Dixon, while Duncan also tossed in 11 points. Beard was 3-for-3 from the field and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line for his eight points.
The Rockets have now won the last three against the Dukes, including last year’s regional championship played at Tabor Gymnasium.
“There’s really not a lot of difference between the two teams. We just had the run at the end,” Bickett said. “Both teams have kids that play a lot of minutes and can shoot it and do a little bit of everything. There wasn’t much margin for error. I think you’ll see both of these teams get better and better as the year goes on.”
Rock Falls 58, Dixon 52
Star of the game: Dylan Leaf, RF, 20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals
Key performers: Cade Nailor, RF, 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals; Austin Meiners, RF, 11 points, 3 3-pointers, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals; Beau Bailey, Dixon, 15 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals; Oscar Van Sickle, Dixon, 11 points, 3 3-pointers, 6 rebounds, 2 assists
Up next: Winnebago at Dixon, 7:15 p.m. Friday; Rock Falls vs. Kewanee at Colmone Classic (Hall), 4:30 p.m. Saturday