For all the competitive, hard-fought, last-second thrillers in the Upstate Eight River this year, you would think the conference race would be up for grabs heading into the stretch run.
Larkin, though, is steadily taking all the suspense out of it. The Royals picked up another big road win Tuesday night, getting 22 points and 8 rebounds from their 6-foot-10 center Jalen Shaw and some solid team defense for a 58-53 victory over Geneva.
The No. 3 ranked team in the Daily Herald Top 20, Larkin (15-6, 8-0) maintained its grip on the conference lead with just four games to go while No. 15 Geneva fell to 15-9, 5-3.
"It's not over yet but we like where we're at," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said.
Carter also was all smiles about the way his defense executed a game plan centered around slowing down junior point guard Jack McDonald, who was coming off a 32-point game against Batavia and 28 points against St. Charles East in his last two conference games.
McDonald finished with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.
Three of those points came on the final shot of the first half, a 3-pointer that rattled in. It drew the Vikings within 30-27 at halftime and had an animated Carter frustrated on the sideline with a rare defensive miscue.
"Defensively all week we talked about making him play in a crowd," Carter said. "We had a guy trying to make a big steal instead of just sitting down and being normal defensively and you can't give a kid that kind of look. Especially going into half I'm thinking now he's feeling good about shooting jump shots. But I think our guys responded."
That they did. Geneva did tie the game once at 32 when McDonald found Mitch Mascari for a 3, and that same combination connected again when McDonald drove and kicked out for a long Mascari 3 that trimmed Larkin's lead to 41-40 late in the third quarter.
The Royals responded with Pierre Black's scoop shot and then a heavily contested 3 from Black that beat the third quarter buzzer and put Larkin up 46-40.
With Larkin ahead 50-42 after a 3-point play from Shaw, Josh Preston scored, then hit a pair of free throws with 2:41 remaining to bring Geneva within 50-46.
Larkin took control again when Kindrel Morris drove for a basket, the Vikings missed a dunk, and Shaw scored inside for a 54-46 lead with 1:30 left.
"We just need to do what our coach tells us to do," Shaw said. "That's when we win games. In practice all we've been working on is defense, defense, defense and not fouling."
Anthony Lynch added 13 points and 3 steals, Black came off the bench for 10 points and Morris scored 9.
The Royals shot 51 percent (24 of 47) to Geneva's 42 (21 of 50). The Vikings only attempted 3 free throws in the game, partly because when they drove the lane Shaw was waiting for them, and Geneva usually kicked out to a shooter.
"I have all the respect in the world for his (McDonald's) game and he was a huge piece of our scout," Carter said of the crafty 5-11 guard. "It wasn't just one guy. It was a team effort. Jalen was able to sit where he sat because guys talked and rotated on shooters. We challenged the guys with our scout, it was a high-level scout, and they executed it."
Jack Hood led Geneva with 15 points, Mascari scored 8 and Kross Garth 7.
"Jalen Shaw, we don't have an answer," said Geneva coach scott Hennig, whose team started out in a zone but switched to man after an early 10-2 deficit.
"He didn't block shots but his presence was just enough where it alters the shot. He makes you think and it affects the shot. We had a lot of shots go in and out. He's the difference for them, that's why they are winning the league. I think Morris is so good. He doesn't get a lot of press, but I think Morris is the glue, and Black hit some big 3s and we were on him."