Considering defense was what brought Kaneland back from a 10-point deficit to Hinckley-Big Rock Tuesday night in Maple Park, it was fitting that was the end of the court the Knights sealed their 44-42 victory.
With 11 seconds left and the Royals (6-2) bringing the ball up court looking to either send the game to overtime or win it with a 3-pointer, John Pruett read Bernie Conley's pass perfectly for a steal.
Pruett dribbled a few times and then passed ahead to Cole Carlson who dribbled out the final few seconds of a game the Knights (2-4) trailed by as much as 23-13 in the second quarter. "In the timeout we switched to 1-3-1," Pruett said. "We were going to pressure Bernie. I saw him turn and fake and he lost his dribble so I was going for it no matter what.
"Hinckley is a good team, they are picked to win 1A state, so we knew they were going to come in here and want to beat us. It was a good win for us."
Moments before Pruett's game-clinching steal, Carlson came up with the biggest basket of the night. With the Royals leading 42-41 on 2 free throws from Conley with 1:58 remaining, the Knights came back and worked the ball to leading scorer Matt Limbrunner.
Limbrunner's shot rimmed out, and players from both teams had chances to secure the rebound. Carlson eventually came out of the scramble with the ball, then laid it in for a 43-42 lead with a minute left.
"I was proud of how Cole Carlson played. Came up with a big shot at the end of the game and really worked hard. He wanted it," Knights coach Brian Johnson said. "He had a rough week about a week ago but he stepped up his game. He's doing a great job filing in the role we need him to fill in."
Trailing by 1, the Royals had three chances to regain the lead. They stepped out of bounds on the first possession, then missed two great looks -- one right in front of the basket and the next an open 12-foot jumper.
Limbrunner split free throws with 11.1 seconds left for what turned out to be the final point of the night. He led the Knights with 14 points, Pruett scored 12, Tyler Carlson 10 and Cole Carlson 6.
"I wanted to win, it was a team effort tonight," Cole Carlson said. "We needed this win. We needed to get back on track after the Batavia tournament and Sycamore."
The Knights struggled with turnovers in the loss to Sycamore on Saturday, and Hinckley-Big Rock took advantage of five turnovers in the first quarter to lead 13-12. It would have been a 4-point lead if not for Tyler Carlson's banked in desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Conley scored the first 8 points of the second quarter as the Royals built their lead to 21-12. At that point the senior guard had scored 15 of his team's 21 points.
Kaneland got back into the game by keeping the ball out of Conley's hands. The Knights sent a second defender at Conley every time he touched the ball the rest of the game, and Conley's only other points over the final 21 minutes came on his two free throws late in the fourth quarter.
"We stepped up defensively," said Johnson, adding the only other time the Knights have used a defense like that was against Streator last year and a little against Batavia in the season-opener. "We were able to rotate a little stronger. I thought the guys scrambled a lot better on the traps. It was key for us to get the ball out of his hands."
Limbrunner made three 3-pointers and scored 13 points in the first half to bring the Knights within 25-22 at halftime. They outscored the Royals 11-4 in the second quarter to lead 33-29 going to the fourth.
Cole Carlson scored all 6 of his points in the final 4:10, and Pruett also had a pair of clutch baskets in the fourth quarter to give the Knights just enough offense to win a game they shot 16 of 38 from the field (42 percent) and 6 of 11 at the line.
"Kaneland did a great job defensively," Hinckley coach and Kaneland alum Bill Sambrookes said. "They got into our heads. They made us start questioning our decision-making. It is all 100 percent credit to what they did."
Conley led the Royals with 17 points and Michael Bayler scored 14.
"He's (Conley) going to get more and more of that," Sambrookes said of the Knights' double teams. "My God he's a third team all-state player and he's going to see that stuff. But when you see that stuff you can't lose your focus. He had a great first half. He's got to learn to play through that. Second half I think maybe some of the grabbing and shoving and elbows started wearing on our guys. Lots of physical play and I think it wore them down and got into their heads."