Geneva boys basketball coach coach Phil Ralston considers January the "dog days" of the boys basketball season, when some teams take strides forward while others regress.
Ralston was concerned his team was on the verge of regression after last week's 59-37 loss at Batavia, but Saturday's hard-earned 61-56 victory at Upstate Eight River-leading Larkin proved the Vikings aren't about to be leashed.
"I told (the players) they've had too good of a season so far to be one of those teams that takes steps backward," Ralston said. "We knew we had a chance to get back and be tied for first in conference. The kids knew the importance of this game."
Geneva (14-4, 5-2) pulled even in the loss column with Larkin (16-3, 6-2) and St. Charles East (11-7, 4-2) by controlling the pace, limiting the Royals' effectiveness from 3-point range (3 of 12), executing well in half-court sets and sinking free throws.
In fact, the Vikings made all 15 of their free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter and 22 of 26 overall to snap Larkin's 11-game winning streak.
"It's definitely helpful when you can hit free throws in the clutch," said Geneva junior guard Cam Cook, who drained 6 of 6 from the line in the fourth quarter to finish with 11 points.
The game was tied, 43-43, until sophomore Nate Navigato, who paced Geneva with 19 points, pulled down an offensive rebound and fed senior Mike Trimble for the go-ahead layup with 6:26 to play.
The Vikings forged 5-point leads three times in the ensuing minutes, but an NBA-range 3-pointer from Larkin senior guard Quantice Hunter pulled the Royals within 55-54 with 46.9 seconds left.
However, Cook drew a foul against Larkin's full-court press and sank both to provide breathing room. Larkin responded with a long 2-point jump shot from junior Derrick Streety to draw within 57-56, but the Vikings again broke Larkin's press and the Royals were forced to foul Navigato, who drained both shots.
With a chance to tie, Hunter's 3-point attempt from the top of the arc caromed off the back rim. Geneva snared the long rebound and Pace Temple was fouled with 13.6 seconds remaking. He canned both free throws to provide the final margin of victory.
"It feels very good," Navigato said. "Now we're tied. It's huge for us."
Larkin guard Quentin Ruff, who made six 3-pointers and scored 20 points in Friday's win over Streamwood, did not play in the first half against Geneva due to a code violation, according to coach Deryn Carter. Ruff missed all 4 of his 3-point attempts in the second half, but that was hardly the reason Larkin lost its grip on sole possession of first place.
"Execution is what got us beat. They do it at a high level," Carter said of the Vikings. "If this was Vegas, we'd be handicapped in the execution segment of the game anyway. They execute better than we do on a nightly basis, but I think it was two or three times what it should have been. We know we've got to get better in the half court.
"Tonight showed our two weaknesses: half-court execution and defensive rebounding. As I said a while ago, nobody's ready to play in March at the end of January. We'll keep working on it."
Larkin junior Kendale McCullum led all scorers with 24 points on 8 of 13 shooting, grabbed 7 rebounds and made 5 steals. Hunter finished with 11 points, including three 3-pointers and Streety added 9 points.
"Larkin is one heck of a team," Ralston said. "We really count this as probably the best win of the season, especially after how we played last week against Batavia. It was nice to see the boys respond positively in this game."
The teams will meet once more in Geneva on Feb. 8.