Sages' win streak continues after dominating effort

Sages' win streak continues after dominating effort

TOLONO — Even the best-laid plans can go to waste under the most strenuous of circumstances. Just ask the Unity boys' basketball team after Tuesday night's Illini Prairie Conference showdown with Monticello.

The host side was missing star scorer J.T. Wheeler due to injury. Thus, the Rockets opted to hold the ball for large stretches in the first quarter.

"We were going to try to milk a minute off the clock and run a set, then milk another minute off the clock," Unity coach Matt Read said. "And I think we could've done that for a while."

The Sages had other ideas.

Monticello missed just one shot in the opening eight minutes while piling up a 15-2 advantage, and the Sages never looked back en route to a 54-23 thumping of the short-handed Rockets.

Seniors Johnny Dawson and Calvin Fisher combined for 10 points in the tilt's early moments as Monticello (21-1, 8-0 IPC) overwhelmed Unity (14-6, 3-5) with pinpoint accuracy and equally strong ball handling. The Sages committed just two turnovers in the first half and only six on the evening, while prohibiting the Rockets from running their offense through senior big man Jonathan Decker.

"We knew we needed to stop them on defense," said Monticello junior Benton Singleton, who netted eight points and posted two of the Sages' 13 steals. "We knew J.T. wasn't going to play (Tuesday), but we still needed to play really good defense — just lock them down. Getting stops is a focus for us."

Monticello did so with such ruthless aggression that an intermission half-court shooting contest produced nearly as many points (three) as Unity had mustered (five). Sages coach Kevin Roy said Wheeler's absence, which eliminated a 19.9-point scoring average from the Rockets' lineup, did not entice his boys to look at Unity any differently than they would if Wheeler was healthy.

"They're not a team that's going to lay down and not compete," Roy said. "We knew they would come out and play hard, play physical, because that's what the game's about. ... I felt like our guys stayed focused and still got the defensive stops and were able to get into transition, get a few easy baskets early to start."

Fisher ended with 13 points, five rebounds and four swipes for Monticello, while Dawson added 12 points and four steals. The Rockets were paced by seven points from Decker and another five from junior Evan Miebach while Wheeler watched from the sideline in a gray walking boot.

Unity may have caught a break with its inclusion this year in the Class 3A postseason, as Wheeler now will have an extra week to recover from what Read called a high ankle sprain. The alternative would be jumping into the playoffs next week, as the Rockets did last season in 2A.

"We've just got to go on from here," Read said. "You hurt for (Wheeler) personally because ... he's worked long and hard for his senior year, and I just feel bad for him — not for himself or not even for the team as much as you do for him."

The Sages, in the meantime, cap their regular season Friday with IPC enemy Olympia before drawing into a 2A regional semifinal bout with either Paxton-Buckley-Loda or Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin.

Though Monticello has tallied 14 consecutive triumphs since a two-point setback on Dec. 29 against Ridgeview, Singleton feels the Sages have even more room to excel.

"I know we can still make improvements," he said. "Tiny details — we've got to pay attention to those. But I think we're on the right track. Just (working on) basic fundamental offense and defense, spacing the floor, knowing who's open, next man (and) next rotation on defense."

That competitive fire is what Roy senses among his entire crew, which is trying to prove it can go further than last season's fourth-place finish at the 2A state tournament.

"The guys are still excited to play, (and) they're still excited to come to practice," Roy said. "That's a good sign this time of year. Some programs will be looking forward to the end of the season, (but) these guys are still excited and anxious to play."