With combined 31.3 percent shooting from the field and 31 turnovers, the offenses of the Neuqua Valley and Bartlett basketball teams had all the harmony of an out-of-tune orchestra Friday.
So it was two instances of sweet string music from Neuqua's Jabari Sandifer that helped spell the difference as the Wildcats gritted out a crucial 41-30 Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division victory over the visiting Hawks.
Neuqua (21-2, 9-1) held a tenuous 18-12 lead after a sluggish first half when Sandifer came out and drained a pair of 3-pointers in the first minute of the third quarter to instantly bump the lead to 12; Bartlett (18-7, 7-3) did not get closer than 7 points the rest of the way.
"I was one of the options, but I wasn't hitting my 3s in the first half, I was rushing my shot," said Sandifer, who finished with a game-high 17 points, "but I wanted to take them and was ale to hit a couple."
That was the plan of Wildcats coach Todd Sutton: "We set the play for him, and we sure needed it. Other than that, we were really struggling," he said.
Most disappointing for Bartlett coach Jim Wolfsmith was that he knew Neuqua would target Sandifer to open the half, but his team didn't respond.
"They came out and ran the same play for him twice, and I knew it was coming," he said. "We talked about it but didn't defend it right and gave two open 3s to their best player."
Speaking of targets, multiple Wildcats had their eyes on Bartlett's UIC-bound Lance Whitaker, as he was hounded from one end of the floor to the other all night. It's actually a testament to Whitaker's talent that he was able to score a team-high 15 points since all of his shot attempts came with two, if not three, Wildcats harassing him.
"We knew they have a few shooters on the team on the team, but we had to really help on Lance, and if they hit a few shots, we'd take it," Sandifer said. "Overall, we played really good defense. We kept them in the 30s and it's always good when you can do that."
The Wildcats held a 5-3 lead when Brad Mikulecky, Pat Kenny, Darien Miskel and Connor Raridon combined for 11 straight points and a 16-3 edge. But then the Wildcats went the final five minutes of the first half with only 2 points, while Whitaker came off the bench after picking up two quick fouls to score 6 straight points and Justin Busch added a three-point play to pull the Hawks within 18-12 at the break. But the Neuqua defense was so dominant all night that when Mitch Reid scored nearly three minutes into the final quarter, he became only the third Bartlett player to notch a field goal.
"We missed some shots early and it just changed the feel of the game; if we make them, maybe it's a different game," Wolfsmith said. "We just have to find other ways to have people score. When they don't, it gives (opponents) more confidence to put more guys on Lance."