MARENGO — Instead of the usual one game at a time approach, Marengo first-year head coach Will Benson allowed his team to think about the big picture, if only for a few days, before the 64th annual E.C. Nichols Tournament.
"We talked about, as a team, we're in a spot where we can make a mini short-term goal," Benson said. "We had a goal to win our pool and reach the final four [first-place bracket.]"
After winning the first two games in pool play, the Indians needed just one more win to guarantee themselves a spot in the first-place bracket. Marengo (6-4) survived a slow start and hung on late in the fourth quarter in a 50-44 win over Wauconda to finish 3-0 in pool play. The Indians secured a spot in the first-place bracket with the win and will play Friday night.
Wauconda plays a unique defense, a matchup-zone, which takes away plays under the basket and makes it tough to drive the lane. The defense caused some early offensive problems for the Indians, who committed three turnovers in the opening quarter and managed just six points.
But while the offense was still working out some kinks, the defense was able to hold the quick Bulldogs to five points due to Adam Rogutich's strong defense and presence in the middle when Marengo's 6-foot-6 center Andrew Volkening had to sit due to early foul trouble.
Rogutich grabbed three rebounds and scored four points to help the Indians hold their slim lead. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. By the second quarter, the Indians had figured out the Wauconda defense and took a 21-14 lead into halftime.
"I thought our defense had gotten better and it kept us playing strong," Benson said. "Wauconda plays a defense that we never see. We watched film, but it's a difficult thing to prepare for until you actually get out and do it.
"It was tough for us but then we made some shots and created opportunities."
Coming out of the break, the Bulldogs tried attacking the basket more and were successful in getting second-chance opportunities by controlling the boards before Marengo countered with its big lineup.
For a long stretch,the smallest player on the floor for the Indians was 6-2 Weston Shepard as he played with Volkening, Rogutich (6-3), Hunter Simonini (6-4) and Dustin Rondorf (6-3). The Indians switched to a 2-3 zone with the big lineup, which forced the Bulldogs into tough shots and retook the edge in rebounds. On the offensive side, the Indians exploited the Bulldogs' lack of size at the end of the game.
With a slim lead, Rogutich got to the line and made both free throws before Volkening scored four consecutive baskets late in the fourth and was 2 of 2 from the free-throw line as he closed out the game.
"It was really exciting," said Volkening who finished with a game-high 16 points. "We got a new coach this year and he made some changes and its been exciting. We're confident at the end of games and we were able to take what we do in practice and transfer it into a game."
"We really showed good leadership late in the game," said Benson. "When Wauconda put a full-court press on us, the kids solved that problem themselves and understood rotations and were able to get some good opportunities."