ROCK FALLS – The challenges are only going to get tougher for the Rock Falls Rockets.
They put a check next to one of those challenges Saturday against Byron on Senior Night at Tabor Gym. Coming into the game, the Rockets had three more Big Northern Conference teams to play, with just three losses among them.
Rock Falls remained one of two unbeaten BNC teams after surviving for a 68-63 win over the Tigers. Only the Rockets (20-5, 7-0) and Winnebago (8-0) are perfect so far in conference play, and every other team has at least two losses.
The Rockets’ winning streak is at nine games, and Byron’s streak was snapped at six.
“We haven’t lost a game since we got out of our Christmas tournament, and I think we’ve got a lot of good stuff going right now,” said Rockets senior guard Austin Meiners. “We always work as a team in practice, and we’ve always been getting better. Right now, we’re gelling really well, and it might be hard to beat us.”
Meiners made his Senior Night special by hitting a season-high six 3-pointers, the last of which came from the left wing off a pass from Cade Nailor with 2:31 to play in the game. That shot gave the Rockets the final lead of a nip-and-tuck game at 62-61, and was the last of five fourth-quarter lead changes.
Meiners, who was honored along with fellow senior player Scott Spears, finished with 26 points.
“The ball was just going in the hole, and I was just letting it fly,” Meiners said. “I just kept doing it.
“The feeling of it with the whole crowd behind me, it was a great feeling to know that we took the lead and were on the road to the win.”
Byron (22-5, 6-2) was hoping to remain in conference contention, and sharpshooters Tanner Klein and Pauly Rico led the Tigers to an early 7-2 advantage with a seven-point run. Klein had a pair of buckets, and Rico hit a 3.
That turned out to be the largest scoring run in the game, which was nip-and-tuck for all but the final 2 minutes.
“Coach [Brad Bickett] has been on our butts all week long about Byron, Byron, Byron, Byron, Byron, and don’t fall asleep on their shooters,” Rockets junior forward Nate Wiles said. “We did that in the first quarter, but then we picked our game up.”
The Rockets either fed the ball inside to Nailor or kicked it outside to Meiners at the arc throughout much of the first half. Meiners hit three of his 3-pointers in the first quarter, two of them off Nailor assists.
Byron led 16-15 at the end of one quarter, 34-32 at halftime, and 50-49 at the end of three quarters.
Nailor put back a missed shot at the halftime buzzer to inch the Rockets within two. He finished two assists shy of a triple-double (eight), and scored 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds (seven on offense).
“We’ve just got to stay mentally focused and just go one game at a time,” Nailor said. “We don’t want to overlook any opponent, because we don’t want that loss.”
The Rockets pulled down 13 offensive rebounds to the Tigers’ seven. Wiles grabbed five on each end of the court to finish with 10, many of them against much taller post players such as 6-foot-6 Connor Harn and 6-foot-7 Riley Adams.
“It was harder than what I expected it to be,” Wiles said. “We played Stillman last week, and it was a cakewalk for us. We had to worry about boxing kids out, but tonight they had two big kids come up and get the ball. A lot of competition tonight.”
Rock Falls reached 20 wins with three regular-season games to play, a rate not seen since 2006-07. They’ll travel to Winnebago, the No. 2-ranked team in 2A, on Friday in a game that could determine the conference championship.
Rock Falls 68, Byron 63
Stars of the game: Austin Meiners, RF, 26 points, 4 rebounds; Cade Nailor, RF, 21 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
Key performers: Tanner Klein, Byron, 11 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds; Dylan Leaf, Rock Falls, 11 points, 3 assists; Connor Harn, Byron, 9 points, 7 assists; Nate Wiles, RF, 10 rebounds, 2 points
Up next: Rock Falls at Genoa-Kingston, 7 p.m. Tuesday