Neuqua Valley and Larkin are the Upstate Eight Conference's boys basketball odd couple.
UEC Valley champion Neuqua Valley prefers a tidy, organized, half-court game reliant on proper execution.
UEC River champion Larkin feels right at home when games get messy, feeding off havoc and thriving in the open court.
Though the teams took turns imposing their respective wills upon each other in Elgin Friday, Neuqua Valley eventually cleaned up by dictating its pace during a 15-0 fourth-quarter run that ultimately led to a 63-53 crossover victory.
"Up until that point it was just back and forth, back and forth, a great basketball game with run after run after run," Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said. "Finally, some half-court defense gave us the edge."
Some Jabari Sandifer didn't hurt either. The Western Illinois-bound point guard had been held to 6 points by Larkin junior Kendale McCullum until he drained a 3-pointer with 4:50 to play, staking the Wildcats a 50-46 lead.
Following a Larkin missed layup at the other end, Sandifer beat McCullum by a step on a drive and drew the foul, extending Neuqua's lead to 7 points with 4:19 left. Sandifer's steal and breakaway layup capped the 15-0 run and gave the Wildcats a 59-46 advantage with 1:40 remaining.
"We weren't scoring as much so I needed to step up and score a little bit more," said Sandifer, who led Neuqua with 14 points, 4 assists and 3 steals. "My shot had been off the whole game, but I just felt my way. I was happy I stepped up in the end."
"He did what a big-time player does; he controlled the tempo the last six minutes or so," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said.
Neuqua Valley (23-2) led 20-16 after a quarter, 28-25 at halftime and stretched its lead to 38-28 midway through the third quarter. However, Larkin (21-4) countered with a 16-4 run to take its first lead of the game. Senior guard Quantice Hunter (12 points) swished 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to cap the surge and give Larkin a 44-42 lead 44 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Larkin's lead was short lived against the late heroics of Sandifer and 6-foot-3 senior forward Darien Miskel, who pulled down 4 of his 11 rebounds in the fourth quarter before heading to the bench with an apparent ankle sprain.
"We can definitely stick with one of the top teams in the region," Hunter said. "We just have to learn how to finish games."
The teams will meet again next Friday in the regular-season finale in Naperville.