The entire first quarter Friday, Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton looked less than impressed. By the end of the game the Wildcats had cheered him up.
At the 47th annual East Aurora Boys Basketball Tournament Neuqua Valley clamped down defensively on Peoria Central and got good second-half scoring from Jabari Sandifer, Pat Kenny and Connor Raridon to defeat the defending Class 3A state champions 64-47.
Neuqua Valley (13-0) advanced to the title game at 7:45 p.m. Saturday against Pleasure Ridge Park from Louisville, Ky., which improved to 10-3 and 3-0 in Aurora with Friday's overtime win over Wendell Jeffries' host Tomcats.
"That's why we came here," Sutton said of the tourney title pursuit. "We want to play the really good teams and it's going to make us better for the long run and if we're going to be any good at all we have to play and beat teams like that. They (Pleasant Ridge) are extremely talented. They'll be the most talented team we'll see this year."
And vice versa, perhaps. But the expression Sutton wore during a first quarter Peoria Central (3-7) led 10-9 ran somewhere between bemused and disgusted. That changed when the Wildcats went from allowing 5-of-7 first-quarter shooting to holding the Lions to 2 of 10 in the second as Neuqua entered halftime up 26-15.
"It was help-and-recover drill just like practice and they were awesome at it," Sutton said. "It was just fantastic. It was a defensive clinic in the second quarter."
"We've relied on our defense all year," said Western Illinois-bound guard Sandifer, who scored 16 points with three 3-pointers. "We're a defensive team, definitely. If we can't score on offense our defense helps us lots."
Leading 17-15 midway through the second quarter on a Sandifer 3-point swish, the Wildcats closed the quarter on a 9-0 run featuring 5 Lions turnovers and two 3s by Darien Miskel, who totaled 11 points.
Then Neuqua's Pat Kenny went to work. The 6-foot-4 senior scored 11 of his 15 points in the third quarter. Between he and Trevor Davis on the defensive end, they got Peoria Central's 310-pound Josh Augusta in foul trouble just as the big man started to roll.
"Defense, it's all hustle and just going at it," said Davis. "Once you start doing that 100 percent we were fine."
Leading 47-31 after three quarters, Raridon quickly scored 6 of his 8 points, a bank shot giving Neuqua a 54-34 lead at 6:20 of the fourth.
The Wildcats weathered a mini-storm by Peoria Central's Eriq Baird, who pulled the Lions within 56-45 with 3:29 to play. Miskel scored off a Kenny assist and Sandifer and Raridon converted three-point plays to douse the threat.
"They were a little sounder than we were," said Peoria Central coach Dan Ruffin. "We were right with them for a quarter and a half and we made some bad offensive plays that led to easy buckets by them that got us in a hole."