Neuqua Valley may have had a different coach running the team Thursday night, but it was the usual Wildcats effort and yet another Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division win.
On a night when head coach Todd Sutton turned the reins over to assistant Michael O'Toole, Neuqua Valley (16-5, 8-0) played its trademark solid basketball and held off a sharp-shooting South Elgin squad 77-65 in Naperville to stay atop the division.
The Storm led 22-17 after one quarter and stayed close throughout by knocking down nine 3-pointers, but the host Wildcats made their free throws, took care of the basketball and had three players tally at least 17 points on the night.
"We knew they were a very good shooting team, a very good pressure team that traps well and changes defenses a lot," said O'Toole, who has guided Neuqua to victories in his two stints as the head man this season. "They do a lot of good things and they play very hard. They've got three or four guys that can really shoot the ball. You saw that early and you saw that at the end."
While Storm guard Matthew Smith was dropping in five 3s on his way to a game-high 23 points, the Wildcats countered with the trio of Zach Incaudo, Connor Raridon and Elijah Robertson, who combined for 53 points and scored in a variety of fashions.
Raridon made 11 of 13 foul shots, including his final 10 straight and six in the fourth quarter on his way to 18 points, while Robertson had a pair of dunks and some short pull-ups on his way to 17 points. Incaudo, meanwhile, did most of his work down low despite the presence of South Elgin's 6-foot-8 sophomore Tyler Hankins, who blocked 5 shots in the game.
"(Smith) hit a couple 3s to get them back in it and they clawed their way back to within 3 in the fourth quarter," Raridon said. "We just stayed composed with their press and took our time on offense and made them foul us. We got some good looks and when we got to the free-throw line, we knocked them down when it counted."
The third of Smith's 3s cut the Wildcats' lead to 64-61 with 4:31 left to play, but Neuqua countered with a 7-0 run to retake control of the contest. For the game Neuqua made 22 of 25 free throws, while the Storm (10-10, 3-6) went 10 of 16 from the line.
Storm coach Matt Petersen liked a lot of what his team did on the court but was also quite impressed with the Wildcats defense.
"The physicality more than the size hurt us," he said. "They really shorten the floor on you. One because of their size and their length; you have to shoot so much over the top on them. And secondly their physicality … they push you off where you want to go. We set some good screens tonight, but they can still bump you off where you want to go."
Petersen thinks the Wildcats' strength down low played a role in limiting Hankins to 6 points, but he is still impressed with the growth in his young center's play.
"Tyler's line against Metea the other day: he had 14 points, 12 boards, 5 assists and 5 blocks. This is a kid who can be spectacular. Every game … even though he didn't score as much tonight, you see him fighting a lot more. He's gonna be so good."