ROCK FALLS – For half a quarter, the Rock Falls Rockets were rolling against powerful Rockford Lutheran.
But a late Lutheran surge at the end of the first quarter carried over in a big way Saturday night at Tabor Gym, and the Crusaders blitzed the Rockets in the second and third for a 78-49 victory.
“We talked about this being a game of runs,” Rock Falls senior Connor Olson said, “and we went on the first one. But once they got it going, Lutheran went on a huge one, and we couldn’t catch up.”
Olson was integral to the opening run by Rock Falls (15-5, 4-3 Big Northern West). The 6-foot-5 forward hit his first four shots in the first 4 minutes of the game to stake the Rockets to a 13-5 lead.
But the Crusaders (15-2, 6-1), fresh off their first conference loss of the season Thursday to rival Winnebago, found a higher gear. They cut the deficit to four (18-14) by the end of the first quarter, then opened the second with a 17-2 run over the first 3 minutes of the period.
“Our guys came out a little slow, maybe still a little depressed from the loss,” Lutheran coach Tom Guse said, “but we brought so much energy to the floor after the first quarter. We wanted to get back to basics, play better defense than we did Thursday, and I’m real proud of what we were able to do against a good Rock Falls team.”
Lutheran wasn’t finished, either. After closing the first half with back-to-back 3-pointers from Thomas Kopelman, the Crusaders came out after the break and scored 18 of the first 22 points of the third period to put the game away.
In the second and third quarters, Lutheran shot 21-for-34 from the field (61.8 percent) and 5-for-9 from 3-point range (55.6 percent), all while holding the Rockets to 9-for-29 (31.0 percent) from the floor and 1-for-9 from beyond the arc (11.1 percent).
“Lutheran was fantastic tonight, especially when their defense fueled their offense,” Rock Falls coach Brad Bickett said. “When they turned up the heat, we got a little passive and quit attacking. Some of it was us, some of it was them, but credit Lutheran for doing what they needed to do to get back in the game … and then pass us and pull away.”
The high shooting percentage was due in large part to Lutheran’s defense. The Crusaders forced 18 Rock Falls turnovers during the blitz, leading to runout layups and wide-open 3s. Lutheran spread the wealth, with Kopelman (20 points), Nate Wieting (16), Tarence Roby (14) and James Robinson (10) all reaching double figures.
“We knew we had to pick up our defense, because they showed what they could do in the first quarter when we weren’t as aggressive,” Kopelman said. “Our defense really gave us a spark tonight; the steals led to layups, and once we got a few easy shots to fall, it opened up everything else.”
On the flip side, Rock Falls didn’t really even have a chance to pressure Lutheran in the half-court. Many of the steals came near midcourt, leaving the Crusaders ample opportunity to beat the Rockets down the court and find easy, open looks.
“We had no chance to play defense during that blitz,” Olson said. “I thought our ‘13’ defense was working well, but they had so many steals and layups that we couldn’t even get it set up a lot of the time. Once they started jumping at us quicker and earlier in our offense, there was nothing we could do.”
Wieting finished with a double-double for Lutheran, grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing four assists and nabbing four steals. Robinson dished five assists, Roby had four rebounds and three assists, and Kopelman chipped in four assists. The Crusaders assisted on 19 of their 30 baskets, and had five guys with at least two steals.
For the Rockets, Olson finished 7-for-8 from the field for 16 points – all before halftime – and added five rebounds. Steven Armoska had 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots, and Daegan Wharff scored eight points and pulled down six rebounds.
Rockford Lutheran 78, Rock Falls 49
Star of the game: Nate Wieting, Lutheran, 16 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 1 block
Key performers: Thomas Kopelman, Lutheran, 20 points, 4 assists, 2 steals; Tarence Roby, Lutheran, 14 points, 3 assists, 2 steals; James Robinson, Lutheran, 10 points, 5 assists, 2 steals; Connor Olson, RF, 16 points, 7-for-8 FGs, 5 rebounds; Steven Armoska, RF, 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks; Daegan Wharff, RF, 8 points, 4-for-4 FGs, 6 rebounds, 2 steals
Up next: Rock Falls at Mendota, 7:15 p.m. Friday