A calmness borne of confidence settled over the Burlington Central boys basketball players prior to their first-place showdown at Richmond-Burton Friday.
"The bus was silent for the whole hour," Central senior Clint Creal said of the trek north. "People were listing to music, doing whatever they do to get pumped. And we were kind of relaxed in the locker room before the game. We knew what we needed to do."
Central's Rockets believed the defensive skills they sharpened throughout a 10-day layoff between games would help them carve a share of the division lead for themselves. Their confidence was justified.
Burlington Central held R-B to 8 points or less in each quarter and 21.6-percent shooting overall (11 of 51) in a 47-26 victory.
The win lifts Burlington Central (12-8, 4-1) into a first-place tie with Richmond-Burton (8-10, 4-1) in the Big Northern Conference's East Division.
"All 10 days we were off we've been talking about how we need to beat this team to get back in the hunt for first place," said Central senior Ray Hunnicutt, who won at Richmond for the first time in four attempts. "More than anything, we relaxed more than we usually do instead of panicking when something went wrong. When they had a run, we matched it and came back.
"We played defense. That was the biggest key."
It was a complete defensive performance by a team that entered the contest allowing an average of 55.7 points per game. The Rockets stymied R-B's offense by denying lobs into big men Matt and Zach Rygiel and John Flood. That left the bulk of the scoring load to R-B's perimeter players, who were unable to answer the call. The hosts shot 1 of 17 from 3-point range.
"You can't score (26) points and have a shooting percentage lower than that and beat anybody," Richmond-Burton coach Brandon Creason said. "I mean, with three minutes to go we had 21 points. At that point we weren't shooting near 21 percent. Layups, threes, free throws, jump shots -- nothing fell.
"Credit their defense. I don't want to make it sound like we just missed shots. They did a nice job."
Central coach Brett Porto said he was pleased to see the defensive emphasis from practice carry over to game night.
"It showed in our effort," Porto said. "We made everything hard on them, for the most part. We gave up a few more second-chances than I'd like to on that end, but I thought it was a pretty solid effort."
Central won the rebounding battle 42-31, led by 8 boards from Hunnicutt, 7 by Creal (8 points) and 5 apiece from Duncan Ozburn and Ryan Minehart.
Hunnicutt led the Rockets with 13 points, 8 in the first half. He was supported by 12 points from junior sharpshooter Ryan Ritchie, whose 3-pointers on consecutive second-quarter possessions upped Central's early lead to 19-7.
"We came out hot and that helped," said Ritchie, who leads the Fox Valley area with 50 3-point field goals in 147 attempts (34 percent).
Central led 21-11 at the half and opened the third quarter with an 8-0 run to take full command. Ozburn opened the spree with a putback and Hunnicutt drained a 3-pointer. On Central's next possession, Hunnicutt passed to Ritchie in the corner for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer and a 29-11 lead.
Central would balloon the lead to 37-17 on a transition drive by Hunnicutt with 2:31 left in the third quarter.
"I don't think anyone else outside this league really understands how hard it is to come up here and play," Porto said. This is a really big win for us. They're a physical, tough team. They know how to win. They win in football all the time and they translate that into (basketball). It was a testament to how we battled defensively."
Central resumes Big Northern East play Tuesday at North Boone. The Vikings tagged the Rockets with their only division loss on Jan. 5, 53-52.