Emotional night, big win for Burlington Central
Emotion and a blazing start were the perfect fuel for Burlington Central's boys basketball team to win the initial Big Northern East showdown Saturday night.
The Rockets jumped out to a 12-0 start and No. 44 Ryan Fitzgerald enhanced the evening's tribute to the late T.J. Sportsman.
Capped off by some impressive free throw shooting, Central chalked up a 78-57 victory Saturday over Genoa-Kingston.
Extending their win streak to seven straight, the Rockets (17-2, 6-0) are strictly concerned with Tuesday's visit from Richmond-Burton rather than trying to duplicate their 10-0 season start. The Cogs (10-8, 5-1) didn't lack effort, only luck in terms of early shooting.
"Give (Central) credit, they shot the ball really well, attacked the rim, hit threes and free throws, and played with high intensity. I thought we matched them in intensity, but the shots definitely didn't drop early on," Genoa-Kingston coach Corey Jenkins said.
While the entire Central community paid tribute to the Sportsman family during the pregame, Fitzgerald felt a personal obligation wearing the No. 44 jersey. Sportsman, a former IBCA All-State and Daily Herald All-Area team captain who also wore No. 44, died in a highway accident while returning from a fishing tournament he won in Wisconsin this past summer.
"I always want to live up to the reputation he had as a player," Fitzgerald said of Sportsman, the second leading scorer in program history. "Wearing that number is an honor and tonight was a real emotional start, especially with my teammates finding me down low."
Fitzgerald scored 16 seconds into the game and added another basket before Zach Schutta nailed a 3-pointer prior to the first 2 free throws by Fitzgerald. The Wisconsin-Whitewater bound senior ended the night with 34 points including a perfect 12-of-12 at the free throw line.
"A lot of the credit has to go to my teammates for getting me the ball in such a good position time after time," Fitzgerald said.
"No question their big boy had a real nice night," Jenkins added. "He kept knocking them down and the same at the free throw line."
Central took a 12-0 lead just 3:04 into the game when Ta Vontae Harris added a right corner 3 to help the Rockets finish the first quarter ahead 24-5.
Genoa-Kingston responded with a 16-6 run to start the second quarter and got to within 9, 30-21, before heading to the locker room trailing by 12 after Harris drove the lane and beat the buzzer.
The visiting Cogs continued their effort to chip away at the deficit in the third quarter, except Schutta stepped up in big time fashion scoring 14 of his 22 points. Included in that third-quarter scoring surge was 3 of his 4 3-point field goals.
"Once I hit one it made it easier to string them together," Schutta said. "It's real big to stay atop the conference, but I really believe we may not get the recognition we deserve as a team because we're a small school. I think we can hang with just about anyone."
No matter how hard Genoa-Kingston hung around, the Rockets answered every comeback effort. A crucial element during the fourth quarter was sinking 14 straight free throws and finishing the fourth quarter hitting 15-of-18. For the game, the Rockets hit 22-of-26. In addition to Fitzgerald and Schutta's double-digit tallies, Ethan Mayfield added 8 points while Harris and Luke McCurdy added 5 apiece.
"We've been wanting to put together a 32-minute game and this may be as close as we've come," Central coach Brett Porto said. "Obviously we got on a nice run to start and then we simply wanted to keep extending the lead. Our approach is that if we contest shots playing good defense, it's not going in that often, on the other end, we try for wide-open shots which should mean a good chance those will go in. We kept their shooters in touch for the most part."
Cog standout Tommy Luca finished with an impressive 28 points while Brandon Foley came off the bench to score 14, including 4 from 3-point range. Scoring 11 during the second quarter was an essential part of Genoa's battle to get back within striking range heading into halftime.