Neuqua Valley's Darien Miskel grabs a rebound against Larkin on Friday in Elgin. | Michael R. Schmidt ~ For Sun-Times Media
Neuqua Valley played the roll of party crasher to perfection Friday night.
Host Larkin looked like it finally had momentum on its side when Quantice Hunter buried back-to-back three-pointers early in the fourth quarter to give his team its first lead. The good vibes didn’t last long, though, as the Wildcats quickly silenced the home crowd and pulled away for a 63-53 victory.
Western Illinois recruit Jabari Sandifer scored eight of his team-high 14 points for Neuqua Valley (24-2) during a decisive 15-0 run in the fourth quarter. The win was the sixth in a row for the Wildcats, who will try to finish off a two-game sweep of the Royals when the teams reconvene Feb. 22 in Naperville for the Upstate Eight crossover championship game.
“(Larkin) had a great crowd here and it was loud,” Sandifer said. “When they got the momentum going it was hard to come back. It was a good win, I’m glad we got it and we’ll try to take care of business again come Friday of next week.”
Neuqua Valley enjoyed the upper hand most of the night thanks to the lockdown defense that helped propel the Wildcats to the UEC Valley title. But Larkin (21-3) showed the explosiveness it used to win the UEC River championship when Hunter drained three-pointers on his team’s first two possessions of the fourth quarter to put the Royals ahead 44-42.
Following a timeout, Neuqua Valley went right back to work and eventually grabbed the lead for good when Darien Miskel scored with 5:29 left to put the Wildcats ahead 47-46.
Sandifer led the way from there, sinking a three-pointer and completing a three-point play on Neuqua Valley’s next two scoring possessions. He later added a steal and breakaway layup that gave the Wildcats a commanding 59-46 lead with 1:46 left.
“Sandifer took over,” Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. “He did what a big-time player does and controlled the tempo the last six minutes or so.”
Miskel finished with 13 points and nine rebounds before leaving with an ankle injury late in the fourth quarter. Brad Mikulecky added 11 points for Neuqua Valley, which enjoyed a 37-29 rebounding advantage.
“In that last four-minute stretch Darien was just ripping boards down left and right,” Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said. “You control the game when you control the glass.”
For Larkin, the outcome snapped a five-game win streak. The Royals finished 12-for-24 from the free-throw line and were held to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Quentin Ruff led Larkin with 14 points. Hunter added 12 and Kendale McCullum had seven points and eight rebounds.
“(Neuqua Valley) is a very disciplined team and they took away a lot of our strengths,” Ruff said. “They just slowed us down to their tempo.”
NEUQUA VALLEY 63, LARKIN 53
Neuqua Valley (24-2)
Sandifer 5 2-3 14, Miskel 5 3-7 13, Mikulecky 4 2-2 11, Piotrowski 3 0-0 7, Kenny 2 3-4 7, Rairdon 1 3-4 5, Robertson 2 0-2 4, Davis 1 0-1 2. Totals 23 13-23 63.
Ruff 4 5-9 14, Hunter 4 1-3 12, McCullum 1 5-10 7, Royse 3 0-0 7, McFadden 3 0-0 6, Streety 2 0-0 4, Jones 1 0-0 2, Marshall 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 12-24 53.
Neuqua Valley 20 8 14 21 -- 63
Larkin 16 9 13 15 -- 53
Three-point goals -- NV: 4 (Sandifer 2, Mikulecky, Piotrowski). Larkin: 5 (Hunter 3, Ruff, Royse). Fouled out -- None.