FREEPORT — Nearly everything fell into place for the Rochelle varsity boys basketball team as the Hubs attempted to upset No. 1 seed Rock Falls in the IHSA Class 3A Regional Semifinals on Wednesday.
Strong defense in the first half kept Rochelle within two points of the Rockets, who entered the postseason with a 29-2 overall record and a 78-44 victory over the Hubs during the regular season. A late rally in the third quarter gave Rochelle a brief lead, but critical turnovers down the stretch allowed Rock Falls to jump ahead and ultimately avoid the upset, winning 58-55 over the Hubs and ending Rochelle’s season with an overall record of 15-17.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of our kids and I don’t think they have anything to hang their heads about,” head coach Tim Thompson said. “It’s always tough when the season ends, but the kids came out and gave it everything they had… They played a really good game, and I thought we may have outplayed Rock Falls for most of the game.”
Junior Austin Brown scored two quick layups in the first quarter to start the game for the Hubs, and senior Johnny Beck’s stepback 3-pointer helped Rochelle stay close with Rock Falls, who led 12-11 entering the second quarter. Brown sunk two consecutive 3-pointers in the second quarter to finish with 10 points at the half, while senior Kaleb Ackland added five of his 11 points to pace the Rochelle offense. Rock Falls held a slim 24-22 advantage at halftime.
“Austin was great tonight,” Thompson said. “His shots kept us in the first half, and his ability to drive and score or kick the ball out made a big difference for us. He’s really focused on making the extra pass and getting those assists… He was tremendous tonight, and I’m looking for big things out of him in the future.”
Momentum shifted toward Rock Falls to start the second half, as the Rockets began the third quarter on a 10-2 run to extend their lead. While third-quarter blowouts have hurt the Hubs all season long, the purple and white showed incredible resiliency on Wednesday, outscoring Rock Falls 18-5 over the remainder of the third quarter to take the lead, 42-39.
After starting the game 1-for-10 from the field, Beck made four shots in the third quarter to score nine of his team-high 16 points. Four other players made baskets including sophomore Garrett Burdin and senior Noah Knight, who combined for four third-quarter points.
“They didn’t want to give up and let the game get away from us,” Thompson said. “We had times earlier in the year where we would’ve folded and lost by 30-plus points. We talked at halftime about shooting the ball better in the third quarter, and I knew we would start making more shots. Rock Falls struggled to make shots once we switched into our 2-3 zone defense.”
Junior Landan Martin sunk two jumpers for five of his seven points in the fourth quarter to help Rochelle fight back after Rock Falls took a 50-49 lead with 3:45 remaining. Brown added his third 3-pointer of the night for three of his 15 points, and the Hubs led 55-53 before Rock Falls standout Cade Nailor intercepted an inbounds pass from Martin and made a layup on the other end plus the foul shot.
Leading 56-55 with 27.1 seconds remaining, Rock Falls had two chances to ice the victory in the final seconds, but guards Nailor and Dylan Leaf went 2-for-4 from the free-throw line to give the Hubs new life. Trailing by three points, Ackland rebounded Nailor’s miss with 7.1 seconds left, throwing the ball up to Beck who fired a long 3-pointer from the left side that would have tied the game.
However, the senior’s shot went wide and bounced off the backboard and into the hands of the Rockets, who then threw the ball into the air as the final buzzer sounded.
“Their length and their ability to close out quickly made things difficult for us,” Thompson said. “It’s not often that we see teams run the 1-3-1 very well, so we knew their defense would be a problem because their ability to force turnovers allows them to get away from other teams. But we hung in long enough to get a couple of buckets and make it tough for them down the stretch.”