STILLMAN VALLEY – With 35 seconds left in Friday night’s Class 3A Stillman Valley Regional final between Rock Falls and Dixon, Nick Oraham pumped his fist in the air with the assurance of a champion.
In a 62-44 win over Rock Falls, the second-year Dukes coach could finally relax and savor the moment of Dixon’s first regional title since 2014.
After disappointing postseason losses in 2015 and 2016 with star-laden squads, winning as a No. 5 seed over top-seeded Rock Falls was also a time of celebration for Dukes fans who stormed the court immediately afterward.
“I knew it was over after Oscar Van Sickle hit that 3 in front of our bench,” Oraham said.
It was the seventh and final 3-pointer scored by Dixon, making it a 53-41 game with 3 minutes left. That shot put the brakes on a Rock Falls mini-run led by Dylan Leaf that pulled the Rockets within 50-41.
“The difference tonight was all five Dixon players were electrifying and ready to go,” said Leaf, who missed his first shot and heard chants of “Airball!” the rest of the game by the Dixon student section.
“For things to come down to this, it was so frustrating after all the success we had this season.”
With Cade Nailor effectively manning up on Beau Bailey, it was Derian Duncan (28 points) having a career game to lead the Dukes to the dominating win. The Rockets were never in the contest.
“His physicality was too much for us,” Rock Falls coach Brad Bickett said of Duncan. “He’d blow by and get to the basket.”
Like Leaf, Bickett was quick to praise the entire Dukes team.
“They were fantastic,” Bickett added. “Both offensively and defensively, they executed to a T.”
Bailey started up his team with a steal and score, and then Duncan calmly sank a 3-pointer. Another steal and score, this time by Duncan, and Arthur Cox’s uncontested layup had Rock Falls reeling.
For a capper, Bailey put in a 30-footer at the first-quarter buzzer for a 17-11 lead.
Then Van Sickle popped a 3, Duncan scored again, and Payton Lawrence scored and was fouled for a three-point play.
With 5:33 left in the first half, Bickett called timeout with his team down 25-11. At that point, the Dukes were shooting 10-for-13 from the field.
“We’re not a huge team, and need to rely on the 3s,” Van Sickle said. “We needed to be hot, and we were.”
With Nailor carrying the Rockets on his back with offensive rebounds, scoring and defending Bailey, Rock Falls limped into the locker room at half down 31-18.
“It was the best game I’ve seen him play,” Leaf said of his fellow junior.
Nailor needed to step up big-time with the absence of 6-foot-3 senior Austin Meiners, who sat out the game for being ejected in the win over La-Salle Peru. Even with the senior post player, it may not have made a difference with how well the Dukes played.
“It sucks playing without my best friend,” Nailor said. “He was in our heart. He’s such a great teammate.”
In a span of 5 minutes between the second and third quarters, it was Duncan with a 360-degree layup in traffic, a basket with two defenders on him, and a pair of 3s. All Rock Falls had to answer with was Nailor (23 points).
“I feed off my teammates,” Duncan said. “I needed to step up. Everyone on this team facilitated their games.”
How true, especially with his teammates hitting big shot after big shot, as nearly everyone got into the action with timely scores and forced turnovers.
“Everyone has a role,” Gabe Sohn said. “The big three of Beau, Derian and Oscar play their part, and the rest of us play roles. It worked to perfection tonight. A great team effort.”
Trailing 46-28 going into the fourth quarter, the Rockets applied a three-quarter-court trap and made a slight inroad. Nailor fired up the Rock Falls crowd with a dunk off a turnover, and Leaf scored three straight buckets.
“It was typical Nailor,” Bickett said. “What a two-way player. I love him to death.”
“Nailor and Leaf are oustanding,” Oraham said. “It was unfortunate they weren’t at full strength with Meiners out.”
But it was Van Sickle putting a lid on the comeback with his 3, and Lawrence making the defensive play of the game with a steal and underhanded pass while falling out of bounds to stop a potential Rock Falls scoring threat.
“Arthur Cox was the one who stood out defensively,” said Oraham, of the only senior that got much playing time between both junior domianated teams. “Our kids knocked down big shots. Rock Falls made little runs and our guuys responded.”
With a 17-15 record, Dixon moves on to the sectional to play Metamora, a 43-40 triple-overtime winner over Washington in the 3A Washington Regional final on Friday.
“Our guys respond to adversity,” Oraham said. “Right now, we’re playing our best ball.”
Rock Falls (24-6) saw a 13-game winning streak snapped.
“You saw a lot of young kids out there tonight on both teams,” Bickett said. “We have a lot to build on, and so does Dixon.”