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Though the Upstate Eight Conference did not officially term Friday's matchup between River Division winner Larkin and Valley Division winner Neuqua Valley a true championship game, the players knew better.
"It definitely felt like that," Wildcats senior guard Jabari Sandifer said.
And Neuqua Valley definitely played like that.
The Wildcats left no doubt as to which boys basketball team was tops in the UEC during the regular season. They opened the third quarter on a 20-4 run and turned a 5-point halftime lead into a 71-52 blowout.
Sandifer and 6-foot-4 senior Pat Kenny each contributed 6 points during the decisive third-quarter push. Kenny, who led all scorers with 21 points, finished with 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Sandifer scored 20 points to go with 4 blocks, 3 steals and 3 assists.
"We know they're a really good team and they won their side of the conference, so we wanted to make sure we were the legit winner of the conference, not just our side," Kenny said. "I think we showed that."
It was the second time in a week Neuqua Valley (25-2) used a decisive, second-half run to separate itself from Larkin (21-5). A 15-0 fourth-quarter run lifted Neuqua past the Royals 63-53 in a regularly scheduled game in Elgin last Friday.
Larkin heads to the playoffs humbled after losing consecutive games for the first time this season. Coach Deryn Carter had no trouble pinpointing why Neuqua prevailed.
"They play harder than we do," Carter said. "At least tonight they did. It wasn't even close. I think the only thing I could tell them that is positive -- and I think (Neuqua Valley) had a lot to do with it -- is that was as bad as we can play. Maybe we got it out of our system before next week.
"They were beating us to loose balls, they were beating us to get offensive rebounds -- (heck), they beat us in transition and we're supposed to be the team that's good in transition. They taught us some lessons tonight and it was pretty embarrassing."
Kenny and the Wildcats gained an edge in the post when 6-foot-6 Larkin starting forward Drew Jones left the game early in the first quarter with a knee injury of undetermined severity. He did not return.
Each team enjoyed first-half momentum swings. After Neuqua took a 12-5 lead on 4 Kenny baskets, Larkin scored 8 straight points to take the lead, powered by 6 of senior guard Quentin Ruff's 12 points.
Neuqua Valley answered with a 12-0 run to take a 24-13 advantage, highlighted by consecutive 3-pointers from Sandifer, who was honored at halftime as the UEC Valley Player of the Year.
Back came the Royals with an 8-2 push, capped by a 3-pointer from Ruff. Neuqua settled for a 35-30 halftime lead.
The third quarter was all Wildcats. Their 20-4 run culminated in a standout play by Sandifer. He blocked a Larkin shot at one end, hustled upcourt and scored in transition at the other end, courtesy of an Elijah Robertson feed, staking Neuqua to a 55-34 lead.
Larkin answered with an 11-0 run, fueled by three 3-pointers, but the Royals never drew closer than 10 points.
"They came out playing harder than we did," said Larkin guard Kendale McCullum, who led his team with 15 points. "We didn't come out playing hard like we usually do. We didn't have the effort and enthusiasm, that's why we went down like that."
Senior Darien Miskel scored 11 points, senior Trevor Davis finished with 6 points and 6 rebounds and Robertson added 6 points for Neuqua Valley, which opens the playoffs Tuesday as the top seed in the Class 4A Oswego East regional.
Quantice Hunter scored 13 points and junior Derrick Streety added 12 points for Larkin, which opens postseason play Tuesday as the top seed in the Class 4A South Elgin regional.