STERLING – Keith Radcliff spent Friday night either filling it up or assisting others in doing so.
But with just under 2 minutes to play, the Sauk Valley Predator point guard finally found the biggest target on the floor to seal a 100-94 victory over Bloomington at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
After scoring 11 of his 23 points in the first 10 minutes of the fourth period, the University of Indianapolis product drove the left side of the lane and found 7-foot-1 center Joe Wolfinger at the opposite block for a bucket that put the Predators (3-0) up 98-93 with 1:52 to play.
Radcliff added 10 assists and six rebounds, while former Illini Jereme Richmond posted game highs with 24 points (11-for-19 shooting) and 16 rebounds. After Ryan Anderson scored 17 of his team-high 22 in the first half, the Preds made him a non-factor in the fourth, allowing him just one 3-point attempt, which he missed.
Wolfinger stepped off a plane just 2 days ago and learned the Predators' system.
"I was missing him the whole game, so I just told him, 'Be ready for it. You never know when it's gonna come to you,'" Radcliff said. "That was the perfect time for it."
The big fella, who played in Germany and Slovakia, came up with a crowd-pleasing block off a switch, getting a big mitt on a 25-foot 3-point attempt by Daniel Ruffin with a half-minute to play.
"I knew he was going to pull up and not try to drive," Wolfinger said. "So I just got up on him a little bit and got it. I think the guys really appreciate it, and I'm happy to be here with these guys. Good group of guys. Real close."
Ruffin buried two of his previous three attempts, the latter connection getting Bloomington (0-1) within one at 90-89. Radcliff scored on the other end off a Casey Love assist, and Jeremiah Box stole the ball off the ensuing inbounds.
After some slick ball-handling, Radcliff pulled up from just inside the circle and drained an 18-footer over Ruffin to make it 94-89.
With reigning PBL-IBA player of the week Kwan Waller out with a dislocated toe, Radcliff cornered Preds coach Ryan Vasquez before the game.
"He said, 'Hey I could go all 48 [minutes] if you need me to," Vasquez said. "I said, 'I'm gonna get you blows when I need to.' But he's a kid who, you can look in his eyes and you don't have to ask him anything. He's gonna know, 'I can get the job done. Get me the ball. I will set people up.'"
Despite opening practice Monday, the defending-champion Flex – known as the Central Illinois Drive last season – came out like gangbusters, perhaps reminded that the only loss of their 21-1 campaign in 2012 came at Musgrove.
The Flex led 19-9 before the Predators closed the first period on a 13-3 run to tie it at 22.
"In the third quarter and the beginning of the game, we saw what we're going to be capable of as the season rolls along," Bloomington coach A.J. Guyton said. "You can tell when a team is not in shape by how many offensive rebounds they give up and the hustle points.
"You gotta be realistic, man."
The Predators enjoyed a 56-41 advantage on the glass.
Box gave the Preds their first lead at 24-22, and then came up with a steal by getting on the floor at the other end. He later preserved a 73-72 lead entering the fourth by climbing the ladder for a monster block of Justin Bocot in the waning seconds.
Some curious clock management allowed the Preds to regain and build on a lead in the closing seconds of the first half. With the shot clock off, Charles Corbin went glass in the paint with 13.2 left on the clock. But Anderson jacked up a quick 3 on the other end, allowing Radcliff to zip a pass from the left corner on the other end to Wolfinger down low for a bunny and a 49-46 halftime advantage.
The Flex rallied from down 61-53 midway through the third with transition buckets. An Anderson runout gave them a 72-71 lead with a minute left in the third.
"We knew we had to get back in transition defense, because it was killing us," Corbin said.
"We got a little lazy," Vasquez said. "We weren't getting back in transition, and our communication was down a lot. We lost it for a little bit. But we weathered the storm."
Bonus: Preds owner called Waller missing Friday's game a "precautionary measure" and said he'll be ready for Friday's home game against Chicago.
Star of the game: Keith Radcliff, Predators, 11 of 23 points in 4th, 10 assists, 6 rebounds
Key performers: Jereme Richmond, Predators, game highs of 24 points, 16 rebounds; Ryan Anderson, Flex, 22 points, 11 rebounds; Daniel Ruffin, Flex, 12 points, 9 assists