Two down, two to go
WHEATFIELD — Between the starting backcourt of Emmery Joseph and Morgan Crook, along with bench spark Ally McConnell, the trio combined for 22 less points than the twin-sister duo of Emma and Sophia Nolan’s 37 in the 59-35 victory over host Kankakee Valley in the KV Holiday Tournament on Friday night.
But, without the play from those three on both ends of the floor, the St. John’s signees’ efforts would’ve been for naught against the pesky Kougars.
“Morgan is just everywhere,” Blazers coach Katie Collignon said after the 24-point win that in her words, “didn’t justify what really happened out there.
“She gets her hands on so many basketballs just from being active. She’s just so quick. She did a good job of taking leadership, along with Emmery on the offensive end. Ally came in in the final two minutes of the half and knocked down two big free throws ... I mean, that’s all you can ask for. It’s great when you have all of the kids contributing. That just makes the game more fun and makes the team more fun.”
As usual with the Blazers (12-1), they roared out of the gate strong, scoring 14 of the game’s first 19 points to take an 18-11 advantage heading into the second quarter. That’s where the extended defensive pressure of the Kougars (14-2) flustered the Blazers, bringing the game down to just a single possession a couple of times. Emma Nolan picked up her second foul with 6:19 left in the half and the Blazers turned the rock over six times in the second frame to give the hosts a pulse.
“We knew they were gonna be an extremely good defensive team, so we knew we needed to be tough from the get-go,” Joseph said. “We knew we had to just settle down, make smart passes and once we got to making ourselves available better, you could see the difference. They’re long and very active, so once we got that figured out and settled down, we were able to beat the pressure.”
Sophia Nolan scored half of the Blazers’ 12 points in the period with her sister in foul trouble and finished with a game-high 22 on the night, but the final four points of the quarter provided a pinch of momentum heading into the intermission.
Crook, who led the Blazers with four steals, canned a pair of free throws inside the final 30 seconds of the half, followed by McConnell’s pair of freebies off a foul call that gave Marquette just the slightest of cushions at 30-26 through two periods. McConnell finished with eight points off the bench, making all four attempts from the line.
“We didn’t take of the ball as well as we should have,” Collignon said on the first half. “On defense, we didn’t move our feet too much. At halftime, we talked about even if we get beat off the drive, we’re continuing to play. We were kinda stopping in the play thinking, ‘Oh, I got beat, I’m gonna give up.’ We normally don’t play that way. In the second half, I thought we did a much better job finishing every play.”
The start of the half showed “a different mindset”, according to Collignon, as the Blazers forced four turnovers on defense in their first five possessions and pushed a four-point halftime lead out to 14 points with a quarter to play behind Sophia Nolan’s eight-point frame and some active hands.
“It was kinda tough, we had five days off with the Christmas break and now you gotta get back at it,” Crook said on the game and day as a whole. “The last couple of games, we really haven’t played anybody with that type of pressure and we haven’t really faced more of a three-quarter trap that they showed us, so it took some adjustments to try and figure some things out.”
Joseph didn’t score, but led the Blazers in the assist department with five, while Crook canned a pair of jumpers in the third to provide a scoring punch next to Sophia Nolan. On top of the more effcient offense from the visitors, the defending state champions put the clamps on the entire Kougar offense, holding them just nine points in the final 18 minutes of action. The Kougars shot just 22.6 percent from the field on 53 total attempts.
“Coach K always preaches defense and that our defense leads to our offense,” Joseph said. “She told us that the tougher team would take it in the second half and that we needed to be mentally tough and fight through any adversity we were gonna face out there.”
At the end of the evening, Emma and Sophia Nolan were named to the All-Kankakee Valley Holiday Tournament Team in large part to their Emma’s outstanding 32-point outing in the Blazers’ 68-39 victory over Rensselaer Central in the morning on Friday and Sophia’s 22-point title-game performance with 13 rebounds, three steals and a pair of blocks.
“The little things are what really matter in the end,” Crook said. “Coach K always drills that into our heads. Sometimes, the twins are working so hard scoring or guarding on defense, so they can get tired, so you gotta have that second wind to help bring them up and that’s so important for our team when we do that.”
With two games left to play on Saturday in the Plainfield Winter Classic, the Blazers will cap their weekend with four games in two days after just five games during the rest of December.
“I love it. I love the adversity of it all,” Collignon said on the busy end to 2018. “I think it brings out that toughness right before the new year, right before the state tournament and you wanna see how tough you can get. These are where those moments happen.”
Reach Michael Whitlow at email@example.com or (219) 214-4169. Follow him on Twitter @couldbelikemike.
Marquette 59, Kankakee Valley 35
The Blazers beat the tournament hosts to improve to 12-1 behind 37 combined points from Emma and Sophia Nolan.