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Fans at the St. Charles North-Batavia game Thursday night wondering what happened to the first-half offense weren't alone.
"The first half I looked up at the clock and was like, wow, there's a minute to go and it was 10 to 15 or whatever," St. Charles North senior Quinten Payne said. "Both of us were playing good defense. Everyone weren't hitting easy shots and they were missing free throws."
The North Stars scored the first 9 points of the game and went into halftime with a 15-10 lead after a half that saw the teams combine to miss 29 of 40 field goal attempts.
The pace picked up from there. While Batavia pulled within a point late in the fourth quarter, St. Charles North (5-3, 2-1 in the Upstate Eight Conference River Division) never gave up the lead and left Batavia with a 44-37 victory.
Payne led all scorers with 19 points. After the Bulldogs (2-6, 0-3) trimmed the lead to 38-37 on two Zach Strittmatter free throws with 1:47 left, the North Stars held the ball until Alec Goetz (10 points) was fouled with 46.5 remaining.
Goetz hit both ends of a 1-and-1. Mike Rueffer couldn't get his runner to fall, and Payne followed with 4 straight free throws to seal the game.
"You aren't going to blow Batavia out on their home court, at least we're not," North Stars coach Tom Poulin said. "I thought we did a really good job in our half-court man-to-man. That's what we wanted to establish. We wanted to make sure we were in the right spots and it takes a lot of concentration and focus."
The North Stars' 6 for 6 finish at the free-throw line was a stark contrast to their previous game Sunday against Waukegan. Up 7 points with 90 seconds left, the North Stars missed 2 straight front ends of a 1-and-1, gave up 3-point baskets after both misses, and ended up losing a 51-50 heartbreaker.
"On Sunday, that's just something that happens once in awhile and we haven't been it that situation where we were up 7 with a minute to go," Payne said. "You can learn a lot more from that game. We learned how to finish that game."
Payne was in the middle of the North Stars' 9-0 start, sinking a long 3 and throwing a behind-the-back pass on a fastbreak that hit Goetz in stride for a layup.
Batavia didn't get its first point until Strittmatter split free throws five minutes into the game, and the Bulldogs missed their first seven shots from the field until Rueffer made their only bucket in the first quarter in the final minute.
"Our starts have hurt us all year," Batavia coach Jim Nazos said. "We have a very good character team, we keep fighting, we keep coming back. I think it's something that might be a little mental. I think sometimes early on we play not to make mistakes instead of to attack. I think that has hurt us being a little too tentative."
Batavia spent the rest of the game trying to catch up from the 11-3 first-quarter hole and did pull within 30-27 entering the fourth quarter on a 3 from Micah Coffey. Another Coffey 3 and a 3-point play from Rueffer cut the North Stars' lead to 38-35, but the Stars held on with their good decision making and perfect free-throw shooting in the closing minutes.
"St. Charles North is a good team," Nazos said. "There are no walks, the conference is very good this year, very competitive. St. Charles North is going to get a lot of wins this year."
The North Stars won the rebounding battle 27-23 led by Justin Stanko's 8. Strittmatter and Luke Horton both grabbed 6 for the Bulldogs.
"I thought he (Stanko) played like he did at that Thanksgiving tournament, a lot more aggressively," Poulin said of the North Stars' runner-up finish at St. Charles East. "He can be as good as he wants to be. He's a hard cover for other people's 5s."
Batavia lost its fifth straight, none by more than 11 points. Strittmatter and Coffey both scored 10 points to lead the Bulldogs, who hit just 8 of 16 free throws and 13 of 38 from the field including 2-of-10 shooting in the fourth quarter.
"I think we're defending really well," Nazos said. "We go through some scoring lulls but it's something we'll stick with and eventually it will bust. When you go through those stretches when you are having trouble scoring, maybe you can get a steal to help yourself out. We're just going to work to keep improving offensively. We're a work on progress. I think they have made strides. The next stride to make will be in wins."