No team has played Neuqua Valley as well as Metea Valley has this boys basketball season. And no team had beaten Neuqua until Saturday, when Metea dealt the visiting Wildcats their first loss after 15 victories, 55-49 in Aurora.
"It's a great accomplishment to see where we've come from, the games that we lost, the tough schedule we had, to come beat a great opponent," said Metea three-year starter Sean Davis, who scored a team-high 16 points with four of the Mustangs' nine 3-point baskets against the District 204 and Upstate Eight Valley rival.
"They're undefeated, best in our conference, everybody's saying, one of the great teams in the state. To beat them means a big deal," Davis said.
Neuqua Valley (15-1, 6-1) had trailed only West Aurora in the Daily Herald rankings and enjoyed its best start in program history, topping the 14-0 start in 2010-11.
The prior streak came during Metea Valley coach Bob Vozza's 11-year term as associate head coach under Wildcats coach Todd Sutton. Familiarity did play a role in Saturday's outcome, but both Sutton and Vozza said defense was the key.
"We missed a lot of shots that we normally make and they just really guard us, being tough and physical," said Sutton, whose squad shot 15 of 51 from the floor despite 20 offensive rebounds. "Shots didn't go when we were getting bodied up. We're used to making those shots."
Neuqua has earned double-digit victories over every opponent this season but the two games against Metea (10-6, 5-2). On Nov. 29 the Mustangs came within 38-36.
"We know what they run, they know what we run," Vozza said. "But I think it's more of our guys getting up and understanding that they can defend a team like that. They're at the top of the conference right now, so it's our guys getting up. We defended well in both games."
Neuqua Valley led once, 2-0 on Jabari Sandifer's finish off Connor Raridon's inbounds pass 32 seconds into the game.
While Neuqua's starters combined for 9 first-half points, Metea's Davis, Bryson Oliver, Trayvond Taylor and Melvin Meeks totaled five 3-pointers and Vin Patel converted a three-point play. Metea's 12-0 second-quarter run helped take a 27-17 halftime lead.
"We played terrible," said Western Illinois recruit Sandifer, who scored a game-high 19 points but was unaccustomed to the Wildcats committing 10 first-half turnovers and 2-of-13 second-quarter shooting. "We couldn't hit any shots. We were taking bad shots. It just wasn't a good first half at all."
Neuqua's Darien Miskel, Pat Kenny and Elijah Robertson came on in the third quarter, however. On the first shot of the fourth, Sandifer's 3 from a Kenny kickout pass, Neuqua pulled within 37-36.
Despite two steals by Wildcats guard Brad Mikulecky, Neuqua couldn't make hay. Patel sank a 3 from the right elbow, and a mini-burst from Neuqua was silenced by a Davis 3 from the right, 44-39 with 2:36 left. Another 3 by Patel near the same spot gave Metea a 47-40 lead with 2:03 left.
Making 6 of 11 fourth-quarter free throws, the closest Neuqua got down the stretch was 52-49 with 13 seconds left. Metea's Connor Archey and Hayden Barnard iced the win with 3 free throws in the last 10.6 seconds.
"The win feels great," said Patel, who scored 9 points. "They beat us last time by 2 points and this time, you've got to get back at them. We had hard practices all week and it led to today. It worked out well."
As for Neuqua, "We're just going to start over," Sutton said.