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There have been days this season when No. 17 Neuqua Valley’s offense has been less than stellar.
The Wildcats’ defense, however, never takes a day off.
That was the case again Saturday night as host Neuqua Valley overcame poor shooting and a small halftime deficit to defeat Plainfield East 49-35 in Naperville.
“We take pride in [our defense],” Neuqua Valley senior forward Darien Miskel said. “We work hard at every day in practice and defense is what wins games. We know it will win championships and that’s what we want to do, so we come out and play hard every game.”
The Wildcats (24-2) needed that effort against the upset-minded Bengals, who led 22-19 at halftime. The visitors ran into a steel curtain in the third quarter, when the Wildcats outscored them 17-2 to take a 36-24 lead into the fourth quarter.
“Coach [Todd Sutton] told us at halftime that he wouldn’t be happy unless we shut them out in the second half and we almost did that,” Miskel said. “We really wanted to come out and we had to win this game. It was Senior Night so we had to get a win for all the seniors and we came out with intensity on defense after we lost the first half. We knew we had to shut them down and that’s what we did.”
Miskel and senior guard Brad Mikulecky played major roles in denying the Bengals (11-16) any penetration and few good looks even from the outside during the decisive stanza. Both had a pair of steals – Neuqua had six in the quarter – and they combined to score 11 of their team’s points.
Miskel turned his first steal into a layup to begin a 15-0 Neuqua Valley run and then a Mikulecky swipe led to a transition layup by Jabari Sandifer that gave the Wildcats the lead for good.
Miskel followed with a three-point play off a Sandifer assist and then Mikulecky tallied five straight points on a steal and layup and a three-pointer off a pass from Sandifer.
Mikulecky, who had nine points and four rebounds, led the defensive effort with five steals but he had plenty of help. Five Wildcats combined to make 15 steals, with Sandifer getting three, Miskel, center Zach Pugh and forward Trevor Davis two each and reserve Elijah Robertson, flying out of nowhere on the baseline, grabbing one.
“We definitely have a lot of depth,” Mikulecky said. “That’s one of the things that will help us going into the playoffs. Coach always preaches defense and with the younger guys coming in off the bench it definitely was an emphasis tonight for us to play hard.”
Senior Pat Kenny scored a game-high 17 points while Miskel added 13 and Sandifer 10 to go with five boards and four assists. But no other player scored for the Wildcats, who made only 18 of 56 shots from the floor.
Plainfield East wasn’t able to take advantage, though, going scoreless for 6:19 in the third quarter and failing to sink consecutive shots in the second half, when it mustered just four baskets. Aaron Jordan scored 10 points and Josh Smith and Myles Ward each had nine for the Bengals, who never got closer than eight points in the fourth quarter.
“Our offense hasn’t been clicking every game this year but the thing that’s there for us is our defense,” Mikulecky said. “We’re able to rely on that to pull through. If we can’t shoot that well on one day, our defense will be able to shut down the other team so they can’t score as much.”