Vernon Hills neutralized Niles North's intense ball pressure with a steady stream of back-cuts in the first half, and as a result, the Cougars trailed by just 3 at halftime.
But the second half was a different story as Niles North showed why it is one of the top teams in the area, wearing down Vernon Hills in posting a 71-57 victory in the first round of the 35th annual Wheeling Wildcat Hardwood Classic.
With relentless ball pressure from standout guards Lorenzo Dillard (21 points, 3 steals) and Malachi Nix (17 points, 4 steals), Niles North (8-2) forced Vernon Hills (6-7) into 25 turnovers, 16 of which were steals.
"You don't have any time to hang your head against a team like Niles North," said Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty. "They score, boom, it's right back in your face. If you hang your head, it goes from a 2-point game to a 10-point game in a matter of possessions."
The Cougars got a taste of that right away as they led 7-0 in the first quarter but once Dillard scored with 3:37 left in the first quarter, it ignited a 17-2 spurt that took just over two minutes.
"The pressure is ridiculous and we only have three good ball handlers to bring it up," said Vernon Hills guard Nate Rathod, who led the Cougars with 12 points. "That was unbelievable pressure."
But Vernon Hills refused to be intimidated and adjusted well despite 15 first-half turnovers.
TJ Flis (7 points, 5 rebounds) worked hard down low, while Stephen Curry found shooters Robby Nardini (9 points) and Rathod for open looks.
"That's a big goal of our team coming into this tournament," Flis said of not backing down. "We have to show we aren't little Vernon Hills. We're going to come out ready to play and give you a fight."
A 6-0 run capped by Dylan McNamara's bucket put the Cougars ahead 26-24 with 2:48 left in the first half.
"When we got the ball into our halfcourt offense, it was usually a back cut that led to our baskets," McCarty said. "I was proud of the fact that that's what we emphasized in practice and the kids did it to the best of their ability."
The third quarter was a struggle for Vernon Hills as 4 of their 9 points in the quarter came via technical foul shots as Niles North increased its lead to 11.
Flis' tip to open the fourth brought the Cougars as close as they would get at 50-41 as a 12-0 Vikings run that lasted 2:04 put the game away.
"After the second quarter, we were tired," Rathod said of his team wearing down. "The ball handlers were tired."