JOLIET – Having a tall post player is half the battle. Knowing how to use her completes the puzzle.
The Rock Valley College women’s basketball team demonstrated part of the reason it has had so much success in recent seasons as the Golden Eagles rode the play of 6-foot-4 sophomore center Tierra McGowan to a 75-52 victory over Joliet Junior College in the North Central Community College Conference opener for both teams Wednesday night at Wills Gymnasium.
McGowan finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. With her teammates finding her time and again around the basket, she kept Rock Valley on top early on. Then, after the Golden Eagles (12-3, 1-0) heated up from outside to open a 31-17 lead in the second quarter, the Wolves (10-6, 0-1) never were able to climb all the way back against the club that won NJCAA Division III national titles in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and finished second in 2014 under coach Misty Opat.
Not that JJC did not make its runs.
Kierra Tyler, a freshman from Joliet West, came off the bench and sparked an 8-0 run as she scored a traditional three-point play and an 8-foot runner, and Deesha Brefford chipped in a 3-pointer to slice the deficit to 31-25 with 2:57 left in the half.
“We have to be able to get the ball to the basket and convert,” Wolves coach Shaun Sanderson said. “Kierra [Tyler] is going to get there. She’ll throw her body into you, do whatever she needs to do.”
After a timeout, however, Rock Valley scored six straight points, and the Golden Eagles led at the break, 37-27.
JJC’s Cora Likins, a freshman from Lincoln-Way Central, opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to make it 37-30, but the Wolves never got that close again. Guard Jaycee Cleaver scored 16 of her 24 points in the second half, and Emily Cox hit two big 3-pointers for Rock Valley to keep the deficit in double figures.
The Wolves still were within striking distance at 64-52 with 4:09 left, but they did not score again as the Golden Eagles ran off the final 11 points, seven by Cleaver.
“I think at the end we were a little fatigued,” Sanderson said. “But they only had nine players like us, and they were tired, too. We just have to play better and play through being tired.”
It did not help the Wolves’ cause that their best player, Brefford, was playing with an illness.
“You probably noticed we had to sit her out for a long stretch,” Sanderson said. “There was not enough in her to be able to do her usual tonight.”
Tyler led JJC with 11 points. Kianna Campbell (Lockport) chipped in 10, Brefford nine and Zakah Blake eight to go with eight rebounds.
The Wolves needed all hands on deck to contend with McGowan inside.
“Coming in we had two targets,” Sanderson said. “We wanted to front the post and make it hard for them to get the ball in there, and we wanted to contest the three. We were a little slow covering the perimeter all night.”
Rock Valley finished hitting 8 of 24 from three-point range while JJC was only 3 of 15.
The Golden Eagles are ranked No. 4 in the nation, and things do not figure to get a whole lot easier for JJC in the N4C wars.
“In games we’ve won, we’ve held the opponent to 55 points or less,” Sanderson said. “We’ve been averaging close to 80. We’re not used to being the team scoring 55. We’re not going to win games in this conference scoring less than 60.
“This is the toughest conference in the country, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”