MARENGO – The Richmond-Burton boys basketball team entered the 64th annual E.C Nichols Tournament just hoping to be somewhat competitive.
Four victories later, the Rockets are on the brink of winning the whole thing. Knocking off Big Northern Conference rival Marengo along the way, R-B coach Brandon Creason figures, is just icing on the cake.
The Rockets overwhelmed the host Indians in the final eight minutes Friday night, using a definitive 20-point swing en route to a 68-48 victory that landed R-B in the tournament championship game against Grant.
The Bulldogs topped Woodstock, 67-59, to advance to the title game. But after a 29-9 fourth-quarter surge kept R-B unbeaten in the tournament, the Rockets (8-3) believe the championship that once seemed so far away is now easily within reach.
"We feel invincible right now for sure," said R-B junior guard Sam Kaufman, who scored a game-high 26 points in the win.
Now, the key – Creason said – is to avoid a letdown after such a big win over a familiar foe. But Friday night was certainly a step in the right direction.
The Rockets led by 13 points early behind Kaufman, who hit one big shot after another to pace R-B early. But when 6-foot-8 freshman center Joe St. Pierre was forced to the bench with foul trouble, Marengo started to make a push.
The Indians (6-5), who got 12 points each from Andrew Volkening and Adam Rogutich, pounded the ball inside, erasing the deficit and tying the score at 39 by the end of the third quarter. But that's when R-B went to work.
The Rockets relied on a 1-2-2 press that frustrated Marengo, while Kaufman, St. Pierre – along with sophomore reserve Reggie Banks – fueled the Rockets, allowing them to begin to pull away.
"We had to start gambling more, and when you do that, it's high risk, high reward," Marengo coach Will Benson said. "[R-B] did a good job of moving the ball and getting high-percentage looks, and we didn't do as good of a job rotating (defensively) on the weak side."
The easy baskets only restored the confidence that R-B started the night with and that the Rockets will take into Saturday night's championship game. Kaufman's hot hand, along with the effort R-B got from Banks (7 points) with St. Pierre (10 points) on the bench only sweetened the win over Marengo.
And as nice as a holiday tournament championship would be, Creason knows that Friday night's win could pay bigger dividends when his team begins league play after the new year.
"With our young guys and our new guys, what a great opportunity to get us ready for conference play – on our opponent's home floor," Creason said. "I thought if we could just learn from [this].
"But we talked at halftime about how they would make a run and when they made a run, we had to remain calm and respond. And that's pretty much what happened."