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Rachel Mullen found herself open at the top of the key.
With no St. Joseph-Ogden defender near her, the Rantoul sophomore guard unleashed a 3-point attempt in the final 10 seconds of the first half.
She connected on the shot, closing the Eagles girls basketball team’s deficit to 19-14 with the clock whittling down to zero. But SJO would not allow the visiting Eagles to get any closer during Monday night’s nonconference game.
SJO sophomore guard Maddie Poulter hit a 10-foot running floater at the halftime buzzer to push the Spartans’ lead back to 21-14. SJ-O propelled Poulter’s basket into an easy 51-24 victory against the visiting Eagles.
“It was big,” SJO head coach Jeff Finis said. “We were struggling there to hit outside shots, and Maddie hit that shot right before halftime. We went down, talked about everything and came out (strong) in the third quarter. That’s where we put it on them.”
SJO was back at it on Tuesday at Unity, but results were not available at press time. The Spartans start Sangamon Valley Conference play at 7:30 p.m. next Monday at Watseka.
SJO (5-0) kept up its solid play in its first game back since winning the Lady Falcon/Bunnie Classic at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley on Nov. 16. The long layoff had Finis a bit worried on Monday night. Senior forward Bailey Trimble’s outside shooting in the second half probably calmed Finis down.
Trimble scored a game-high 18 points on the strength of four 3-pointers to pace the Spartans’ offense. Senior guard Tori Master added 10 points while senior center Ashley Beals (seven points) and senior guard Ashley Landis (six points) chipped in.
Trimble nailed three of her 3-pointers in a two-minute span that stretched the Spartans’ seven-point halftime lead to 32-16 with 5:07 remaining in the third quarter.
“That’s one thing I always tell Bailey is just keep on shooting,” Finis said. “She’s a good shooter. She got hot. We got out and ran the ball really good. That’s what I like.”
SJO led by double digits the rest of the game, with its biggest lead coming at 51-22 with less than four minutes left in the game when Landis made her second 3-pointer of the game. SJO raced out to an early 9-2 lead in the first quarter after Beals scored inside with 2:30 left. By that point, the Spartans had already forced Rantoul into 10 turnovers, a total that would only increase to 26 before the game ended. The Spartans forced 11 turnovers in the first quarter and eight more in the fourth quarter to turn a close game at halftime into a rout.
“Their ball pressure got to us,” Rantoul head coach Jeff McKaufsky said. “Obviously missing a couple of our main guards didn’t help. The pressure got to them a little bit in the second half, and the turnovers compounded.”
Rantoul played without its two normal starting guards in senior Diamond Walker and sophomore Jasmine Riggs. McKaufsky said Walker was out sick, but declined to give a reason for why Riggs didn’t play. Junior guard Christina Smith handled the ball for the majority of the first half, but she missed the entire second half when she went down with a left hip injury just before halftime.
“St. Joe is a good team,” McKaufsky said. “Obviously we don’t want to see that many turnovers, especially the unforced ones.”
The Spartans held the Eagles to only 25 percent shooting from the field (11-of-44). Mullen’s 3-pointer was the Eagles only make beyond the arc in three attempts. Rantoul also struggled at the free throw line, making only 1-of-5 (20 percent).
SJO finished 20-of-55 (36 percent) from the field, including 7-of-18 (38 percent) from 3-point range. The Spartans finished 4-of-8 (50 percent) from the free throw line and committed 11 turnovers.
Senior forward Hannah Wascher led Rantoul with nine points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots, but she picked up her second foul with 5:55 left in the first quarter and played limited minutes the rest of the game.
Senior forward Kimmy Schwartz added eight points and six rebounds for the Eagles, who trailed 40-20 to start the fourth quarter in a game that got away from them in a hurry.
“We’re quick,” Finis said. “We play a very good up in your face, man-to-man defense. That’s what we do. We capitalize off the turnovers and run the floor. It was a very good game.”