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The 47th annual East Aurora Holiday Tournament got started with a battle between two of the area’s best teams — Geneva and No. 11 Neuqua Valley — and it was defense that set the tone.
Neither team was able to shoot over 39 percent from the field in a gritty battle, but Neuqua pulled out a 56-43 win to remain unbeaten at 11-0.
The Wildcats forced 25 turnovers to make up for 34.1 percent shooting from the field and pulled away late.
“Well, you’ve got to realize that’s an 11-0 team playing an (11-2 Geneva team),” Neuqua coach Todd Sutton said. “That’s two teams battling it out. They’re very strong and they’re very physical. Both teams struggled offensively, maybe because both teams have very good defense.”
Neuqua got a shot of energy off the bench from junior Elijah Robertson to get the early lead. He had a putback late in the first quarter and then scored the first five points of the second quarter to give the Wildcats a 17-8 lead.
“That’s my job coming off the bench, bring a spark to the game,” Robertson said. “When games are dead like that and we start out slow, I just have to come in and bring the energy and get us going. I feel like I did that tonight.”
But Geneva answered with a 10-0 run keyed by five points from sophomore Nate Navigato (game-high 15 points) to take a brief 18-17 lead. Neuqua was up 24-19 at the break.
A 9-1 run that stretched from the end of the third quarter to the start of the fourth gave Neuqua some separation, up 40-27. Once again, Robertson was in the middle of it. He scored six of the points in the run and scored a team-high 14 points overall.
“He’s playing really good basketball,” Sutton said. “He’s really coming on strong. He made a lot of big plays early on the defensive end. He got a lot (of minutes) tonight, and he’s going to keep getting more.”
The closest Geneva could get in the fourth quarter was seven points before suffering its second loss of the season. The Vikings won the rebound battle (28-23) and shot better from the field (38.9 percent) than Neuqua, but they couldn’t solve the Wildcats’ defensive pressure as evidenced by their 25 turnovers.
“They did a great job of pressuring us, but we didn’t set up our cuts right, we didn’t set picks,” Geneva coach Phil Ralston said. “There were some instances where instead of reading what the defense was doing, we had guys that were acting like robots and passing the ball to the wrong spots. When you’re not doing those little things, you’re not going to get away with that against a team like Neuqua.”
Neuqua senior Jabari Sandifer scored 10 points in the win.
Geneva plays Peoria Central Thursday at 3 p.m., with Neuqua following against Aurora Central Catholic at 4:30 p.m.