STILLMAN VALLEY — There may have been only 30 spectators in attendance, but Friday evening’s varsity basketball game between the Rochelle Hubs and the Stillman Valley Cardinals was about as competitive, energetic and evenly-matched as a season-opening contest could be.
For roughly two hours Friday evening, COVID-19 was cast aside and the focus was on the basketball court, with Rochelle and Stillman Valley battling in the first game for both teams in nearly 12 months. The back-and-forth affair saw neither team take a lead larger than 10 points, but the Cardinals managed to hold the Hubs off in the end, winning 71-69 behind seniors Chad Gerig and Micah Johnson, who combined for 55 points with Gerig leading all players with 31.
“It was nice to see the kids play again,” head coach Tim Thompson said. “We were in the game with a chance to win the whole time… Stillman Valley runs such great ball-screen offense and they’re really good at getting those players moving to their strengths. Johnson was excellent going to his left and Gerig was really strong and used his athleticism to finish well at the rim.”
Stillman Valley opened with a strong surge, taking a 19-9 lead in the first quarter with Johnson and Gerig teaming up for 15 of those points. Junior Adam Kemp used the 3-point shot to keep Rochelle within range, sinking two of his team-leading three triples in the opening quarter to help the Hubs bring the Cardinals within four points entering the second quarter.
Despite a solid second-quarter performance from junior Ryan Simmons, who made three close-range baskets for six of his eight points, Stillman Valley answered on nearly every possession, utilizing fast transition offense and taking advantage of slow defensive rotations from the Hubs. The Cardinals led 35-33 at halftime, with Gerig and Johnson scoring 25 of those points.
“It wasn’t that they beat us behind the arc, they beat us at the rim,” Thompson said. “They scored so many layups and we weren’t stepping up and taking charges. We weren’t in good weak-side positions and I thought that was because we struggled a bit offensively. Half-court defense was our bugaboo tonight. We could guard the ball screen on one side, but once they got a reversal or two, our defense broke down. We have to stay disciplined in those sets.”
Junior Tanner Lager took his turn leading the Hub offense in the third quarter, scoring six of his 14 points on two layups and a pair of free throws. Five Rochelle players made shots in the third quarter, allowing the Hubs to slice Stillman Valley’s lead down to 55-54 entering the fourth. Two of those shots were from senior Garrett Burdin, one of three Hubs to score 14 in the loss.
“We need to run our offense through the post,” Thompson said. “I felt Garrett put a little too much pressure on himself to initiate the offense, but that’s natural with a senior captain. Everybody’s learning their roles and there isn’t a tremendous amount of continuity yet. With only four weeks to find that continuity, we’re going to be learning on the run.”
Johnson, who led all players with 12 field goals Friday evening, made three in the final quarter to push Stillman Valley ahead by as many as five points. Junior forward Zach Sanford did his best to help the Hubs stay in the game, taking the ball into the post for six of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. An offensive rebound and put-back layup from Burdin made it a one-possession game with 7.1 seconds to spare, but the Cardinals successfully inbounded and ran the clock.