Two Upstate Eight Conference powers admittedly looking ahead to next week's state playoffs nevertheless put on an entertaining show in Elgin Friday night.
The Neuqua Valley boys basketball team avenged a 20-point loss to Larkin on Jan. 10 with a 46-43 victory in the third annual crossover between UEC division winners, though how much the result mattered to either team on the eve of March Madness was debatable.
"This is just a regular game, finish the season up," said Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton, whose Wildcats halted a 2-game skid ahead of next week's West Aurora regional. "The losing streak or this win doesn't make a difference on Wednesday night because Plainfield North's got 19 wins. We've got 20, so it's a pretty darn even game."
UEC Valley champion Neuqua Valley (20-8), which reached the 20-win plateau for the ninth time in 10 seasons, never trailed against a Larkin squad that played without its normal starting lineup at the start of both halves as four starters deferred to reserves on Senior Night.
The game boiled down to Larkin's final possession. Neuqua Valley led 46-43 with 7 seconds left when the Royals inbounded the ball on the side after a timeout. Larkin leading scorer Kendale McCullum uncharacteristically lost control of his dribble on the right edge of the 3-point arc with time winding down. Neuqua Valley senior Josh Piotrowski sprawled on the floor to retrieve the loose ball and called timeout with .6 left on the clock.
"It went off my foot," said McCullum, who led the Royals with 14 points and 6 assists. "I tried to make a play for a teammate or myself. We didn't get the bounces. We didn't get anything."
Larkin (23-4) had trouble finding its rhythm after a 13-day break between contests. The Royals shot 15 of 51 from the field (29 percent) and missed 12 of the first 13 3-pointers they attempted.
However, Larkin went 3 for 3 from behind the 3-point line in the fourth quarter. Trailing 40-30, senior guard Derrick Streety sank a 3-pointer to ignite a 10-2 run, which was capped by Taylor Boley's 3-pointer with 1:12 to play.
However, the Wildcats burned the Royals on their next possession as inbound passer Connor Raridon hit cutting Demond George for a breakaway layup and a 4-point lead with 53 seconds to play.
"I saw a guy ahead and he was leaking out," Raridon said. "We were fortunate enough to throw it ahead and get the layin."
"I called it," Sutton said of the play with a wry smile. "I saw something."
After a Larkin missed shot at the other end, George added 2 free throws to extend the Wildcats' lead to 6 points with 30 seconds remaining.
Larkin responded with a Drew Jones 3-pointer from the top of the arc and gained a chance to tie when the Wildcats were whistled for a traveling violation against the full-court press with 16 seconds to go.
Larkin coach Deryn Carter was far less concerned after the game about his team's final possession than playing the winner of Monday's St. Charles North regional play-in game between Elgin and South Elgin.
"To be quite honest, we started two weeks ago," Carter said of playoff preparations. "You could see it (Friday). We didn't concentrate on Neuqua as much as we probably should have, but next week means so much more, for sure. Hopefully, we've got bigger things than beating Neuqua on Senior Night in our plans, and I know we do in our goals. So we'll try to get it done next week."
Raridon scored 12 points, George had 10 and 5 rebounds and senior Elijah Robertson added 9 points and 6 rebounds for Neuqua Valley, which won the rebounding battle 31-29 thanks largely to 12 rebounds from 6-foot-4 senior Zach Incaudo.
Streety notched 11 points, Jones added 6 points and 7 rebounds and Brayden Royse finished with 5 points as each senior played his final home game.