ELGIN – Geneva boys basketball coach Phil Ralston considers mid-January the dog days of the boys basketball season.
That's when the grind of the season can dent a team's resolve or, on the flip side, teams rise to the challenge of intensifying conference races.
After Geneva was beaten soundly by rival Batavia last week, Ralston went on high alert to guard against a potential Vikings swoon. Saturday night's 61-56 win against Upstate Eight Conference River-leading Larkin should allay any such anxieties.
"I see it every year – this is where teams will take three or four steps forward, or you'll see other teams take three or four steps backward," Ralston said. "It doesn't matter what your record is, it happens right around this time of the year.
"I told them, listen, you guys have had too good of a season so far to be one of those teams that takes a step backwards."
Beating Larkin – which entered play with an 11-game winning streak – qualifies as a sizable stride in the right direction. The win puts Geneva (14-4, 5-2 UEC River) a half game behind Larkin (16-3, 6-2 UEC River) in the conference race. St. Charles East (4-2 UEC River) is also tied with the Royals and Vikings in the loss column.
Geneva and Larkin were tied, 40-all, going into the fourth quarter, but the Vikings earned separation by making all 15 of their fourth quarter free throw attempts. For the game, the Vikings – who have made about 65 percent of their foul shots on the year, Ralston said – were 22 of 26 from the stripe.
The Vikings at times struggled taking care of the ball against Larkin's athletic backcourt but seemed more confident diffusing the pressure in the fourth quarter.
"We just focused on getting the ball across half court and really slowing up the offense," Geneva junior point guard Cam Cook said. "Coach really emphasized on more reversals, and the more reversals we ran, the more fouls we would get."
With the scored tied at 43 early in the fourth quarter, senior Mike Trimble put the Vikings up for good on a layup off a Nate Navigato assist. Junior Chris Parrilli then added two free throws for a 47-43 Vikings lead.
The Royals remained in the hunt and twice cut Geneva's lead to one point during the final minute, but each time, the Vikings responded by sinking a pair of free throws, with Cook and Navigato taking turns restoring the Vikings' lead to three points.
Geneva was mostly successful making it a half-court game against the transition-proficient Royals, putting the Vikings in position to pull the upset.
"They execute better than we do on a nightly basis, but I think it was even two or three times what it should have been," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. "We know we've got to get better in the half court in execution, and tonight showed it."
The Royals were at a personnel disadvantage because senior guard Quentin Ruff, one of the team's top scorers, did not play in the first half and also sat the first couple minutes of the third quarter for violating team rules. Ruff, who was sizzling from the perimeter in Friday's Larkin win against Streamwood, couldn't find his stroke once he was inserted, missing all eight of his shots from the field, seven of which came from 3-point land.
"It's tough to put a kid in who's used to playing all the time and not play a whole half, and then play in the second half," Carter said. "What he did didn't warrant a full game [suspension] so it was kind of a catch-22. But we trust him. He missed some shots that he usually makes, but that happens."
Slashing junior Kendale McCullum scored a team-high 24 points for Larkin.
Navigato scored 19 points and had seven rebounds for Geneva, which overcame a quiet night from usually productive big man Connor Chapman.
Cook (11 points, 6 for 6 from the foul line in the fourth quarter), Trimble (eight points, nine rebounds) and Parrilli (eight points) also were big factors in the Vikings bouncing back from their lopsided loss to Batavia on Jan. 11.
To go from a 22-point loss at Batavia to a victory at Larkin is an unlikely trajectory. Or, as Ralston might put it, a big step forward.
"Larkin's impressed me a lot," Navigato said. "Their guards are really, really good, their bigs are good. It's a great win. Our best win so far this year."
The teams' second conference meeting will come Feb. 8 at Geneva.