The Henning boys basketball team had a memorable run to a Class A state championship last season. On Tuesday night at West Central Area, they showed they are capable of repeating history.
The second-ranked Hornets (12-1) beat the sixth-ranked West Central Area Knights (10-2) 68-62 in a marquee Section 6A game. Henning's consistent perimeter shooting and ball security prevailed in the six-point win.
"We found out that if we don't turn the ball over, we are probably a better team," WCA head coach Kraig Hunter said. "That was the biggest difference tonight. Henning is good at applying pressure and rotating, and we were still right there with as many turnovers as we had. You turn the ball over on a third of your possessions, and you're still in the game, that's a good sign."
The Knights gave up 16 possessions to the Hornets in the loss. Henning capitalized on its scoring opportunities by shooting 56% from the field.
Eight minutes into the game, Henning jumped out to a seven-point lead. After the Knights called their first timeout, they went on a 10-0 run to go up 18-17. Gage Staples scored seven of his 22 points in that stretch. Staples was one of the few things the Hornets struggled to defend. Henning's Blake Wallevand led all scorers with 25.
"We have a height advantage over them," Staples said. "My teammates kept finding me down low, and I kept putting in work. That's how we are going to beat teams like this."
Finding the hot hand has been working for the Knights. Their unselfish adjustments have led them to 10 wins this season.
"One of our strengths is our depth," Hunter said. "Our kids have the mentality that they all can score so they're tough to guard. Everybody is a scoring threat. We have a balanced team, and every night there's going to be different guys that have mismatches. Grant (Beuckens) had it two nights ago and also Jack (Van Kempen) had it in Wheaton. They knew with the size that they could find Gage inside."
Late in the first half, Henning started to pull away with an 8-0 run. The Hornets went into the half with a 35-27 lead.
"They had great pressure on us, and they could shoot," Staples said. "They can get to a player's head and disturb a lot of plays. They're very good at handling the ball, which makes them so well-rounded."
Jacob Bright cut the deficit to three with back-to-back three-pointers midway through the second half. The Hornets cut the Knight's run short as they opened up a 57-47 lead with 7:30 to play. Turnovers were the difference-maker – killing any momentum WCA mustered up.
"It's just a matter of being poised and slowing down," Hunter said. "We told them that half of it is just the basics. You meet passes, catch them on two feet and you pass fake. It's nothing new. It's fundamentals and having poise with the ball. (Henning) has played together for so long, and they're all on the same page mentally. It's not just their physical quickness, but they're also a smart team too."
Henning held a 66-58 lead with under two minutes left before WCA made one final comeback push. Van Kempen put home an easy layup off an inbounds-pass turnover. The Knights got the ball back off another Henning turnover with under a minute to play.
Henning made the final defensive stand with 13 seconds remaining at the top of the key while the Knights were looking for a clear three-point shot. The six-point loss left a bitter taste in Staples' mouth after the game.
"This is one of the best teams we've played so far, and we feel like we are a better team," Staples said. "Even though we had those turnovers, we know we are the better team. If we can do the little things next time, it'll be a totally different outcome."
The Knights proved that they are going to be a tough out in the Section 6A tournament. However, they'll have to battle through a loaded field to meet their expectations of making it to the state tournament.
"Every team's goal is to get out of their section," Hunter said. "We have to get better every day. That's the saying for us this year. When we are at our best, we can compete with anybody we play against."
HENNING 35 33 - 68
WCA 27 35 - 62
WCA- Gage Staples 22 points, 7 rebounds; Jacob Bright 15 points, 6 assists; Jack Van Kempen 9 points, 8 rebounds; Grant Beuckens 9 points, 4 assists; Tate Christenson 5 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists; Brady Reeve 2 points;
HENNING SCORING- Blake Wallevand 25, Isaac Fisher 11, Blaine Wallevand 9, Parker Fraki 8, Lee Bjorkland 5, Luke Bjorkland 5, Brandon Trana 5