RANTOUL — It was length versus quickness. It was tradition against the up-and-comers. And it came down to the final second.
Rantoul couldn't get off a decent shot in the final 15 seconds, and after senior guard Ryne Worthington's off-balance three-point attempt from the right wing missed long, Normal U-High left the Eagles' home court with a 46-44 victory in the Corn Belt Conference opener for Rantoul (5-1, 0-1) on Friday night.
"I take full blame for that," Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said about the final possession. "I didn't have a timeout left. I called one earlier in the game I probably shouldn't have."
Nearly every Rantoul player on the court touched the ball in the final 20 seconds after the Eagles called their final timeout with 24.7 seconds remaining. The Pioneers' length — U-High's frontline consists of three players 6-feet-7 and taller — caused fits for Rantoul, with sophomore guard Johnny Jones and senior standout Travis Britt having to defer shots at the end until Worthington hoisted the Eagles' lone shot.
"We needed to get a good shot, whether it was a two- or a three-pointer," said Britt, who finished with a game-high 17 points along with 12 rebounds and a monstrous two-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass by Jones in the first half. "It wasn't so lucky for us that it was rushed."
Worthington played vital minutes off the bench in the fourth quarter with senior guard C.J. Morris sidelined with a back injury. He made two free throws with the Eagles behind 44-42 with 42.5 seconds left that tied the game, but U-High guard Kurtis Ellis drove the middle of the lane and hit a runner with 30 seconds left for his only basket in what turned out to be the game-winner.
Rantoul struggled at the foul line, making 12 of 22 (55 percent), including 6 of 12 in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously we win the game if we hit free throws," Frerichs said. "The only disappointing thing about that is we've been pretty good from the free throw line this year."
Senior guard Jackson Carver had a strong game inside, scoring 16 points and grabbing five rebounds for the Eagles.
"I was finding the holes in the zone," Carver said. "The guards, Travis, Johnny and C.J. when he was playing, did a nice job of finding me. I just tried to finish amongst the bigs."
Highly regarded sophomore Keita Bates-Diop led U-High with 11 points and had five rebounds.
Carver said the Eagles can take solace in the fact they kept it close until the end against a perennial conference stalwart.
"It's definitely a confidence-booster," Carver said. "I know a few people thought it wasn't even going to be a close game, so I'm glad we gave them a game. We definitely gave them a run for their money."