FREEPORT — Adversity mounted as the Rochelle varsity boys basketball team attempted to close out its IHSA Class 3A Regional Quarterfinal game against Freeport on Monday.
With both teams battling for the right to face No. 1 seed Rock Falls in the semifinal round Wednesday evening, the tenth-seeded Pretzels made their home gymnasium explode in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, when Freeport guard Devin Stewart sank the game-tying 3-pointer to take the sixth-seeded Hubs into overtime tied 78-78.
As Freeport’s student section and home crowd grew louder, the pressure was on Rochelle to respond and avoid the first-round upset. Leading by two points, the Hubs turned the ball over on their final inbounds play of the game, giving the Pretzels one final chance to tie or win the game.
However, the Hubs stonewalled Freeport guard Deron Lacy on his last-second drive to the basket. Rochelle senior Johnny Beck claimed the final rebound of the game as time expired, and the Hubs survived the Pretzels 86-84 to improve to 15-16 overall and extend their winning streak to five games.
“We knew they were going to be quicker than us, but our mentality the whole game was to play better defense than we did the first time we played them,” said Beck, who led Rochelle with 30 points in the win. “They had over 20 layups in that game, so we wanted to force them to shoot the ball from outside. Even when they made shots, we knew we would be OK as long as we didn’t give them any easy layups.”
Rochelle started the game in its 2-3 zone defense, but Freeport disrupted that zone by sinking perimeter 3-pointers. Lacy made four 3-pointers in the first half for the Pretzels, scoring 20 of his team-best 30 points over the first two quarters to give the Hubs trouble early on.
“Everything was working against us tonight,” head coach Tim Thompson said. “We were playing a really athletic team that plays in a tough league, and we were playing them at home where they shoot the ball much better… Lacey was shooting the ball really well, and he’s really quick so it was extremely tough to guard him when he was playing out by the 3-point line.”
Freeport led Rochelle 18-15 after the first quarter, and despite several turnovers by the Hubs leading to easy layups for the Pretzels, Rochelle hung tough in the second quarter, with Beck scoring 10 points to help the Hubs make it a 34-33 game at halftime in favor of Freeport.
The Pretzels seemingly looked two steps ahead of the Hubs in the third quarter, as Freeport’s man-to-man defensive pressure disrupted Rochelle’s passing lanes and created even more turnovers from the Hubs. The Pretzels began the second half on a 23-13 run to take an 11-point lead over the Hubs, who then called a timeout to talk things over.
“The kids came together and they really tried to keep their composure,” Thompson said. “When we start making shots, we seem to play better on defense and we rebound the ball better. They were playing with confidence, and it was tough for them to get to that point, but I give them all of the credit.”
Rochelle closed the third quarter on a 7-2 run after the timeout, with senior Kaleb Ackland and sophomore Garrett Burdin each knocking down 3-pointers to help bring the Hubs back. Freeport led 59-53 entering the fourth quarter, but behind stronger handling from junior guards Austin Brown and Landan Martin, the Hubs limited their turnovers down the stretch and made key layups to complete a 17-6 run to open the quarter and jump ahead by five points.
“We needed to know the difference between when we should attack and when we shouldn’t,” Brown said. “We stayed under control in the fourth quarter. Our turnovers were really bad early in the game, and that’s when they were going on runs... We really had to absorb all the noise and take it out on the court. We couldn’t give in to what was going on around us.”
Clutch shooting by the Pretzels, which included Stewart’s game-saving 3-pointers, helped Freeport extend the game into overtime. Rochelle scored the first four points before two quick baskets by the Pretzels tied the game again at 82-82. An aggressive take by Martin netted him a short mid-range basket soon after, and after Freeport even the game one last time, Beck sunk two critical free throws after a Freeport foul in the final seconds to keep Rochelle ahead.
Martin finished with 16 points for the Hubs, while Ackland recorded 14 points and Burdin added 12 points. Brown and senior Noah Knight combined for 14 points in the victory.
“I think our rematch with Rock Falls will be a different game,” Thompson said. “We’re going to play wild and free Wednesday night. We have nothing to lose, and they’re a ranked team in the state… I know how difficult it can be to play that first regional game no matter how much experience you have. It’s tough, and I feel that we have zero pressure.”