RENSSELAER — Kankakee Valley showed a tremendous amount of grit while dealing with adversity Tuesday night at Rensselaer Central. The Kougars lost one of their stars — senior guard Lilly Toppen — to a first-quarter ankle injury, overcame a four-point deficit in the third quarter and rallied behind a strong free throw shooting display to record a 53-47 victory at Joe Burvan Gymnasium.
KV (16-5) hit 27 of 34 foul shots, including 11 of 14 in the fourth quarter when it overcome a 31-29 deficit, to outscore the rival Bombers, 24-16, in the game’s final eight minutes.
The Kougars benefited from the return of Toppen, who stretched out her ankle during the halftime session and the third quarter to get back on the floor and contribute four points, including a basket early in the fourth and two free throws.
Once she saw her team fall behind to start the fourth quarter, Toppen asked Kougar coach Brandon Bradley to put her back on the floor.
“Right out of halftime, we had her (off to the side), and I told my assistant I would like her to be able to close out, stop and change directions and she didn’t feel like she could,” Bradley said. “So we sat her and I just made the comment, next Tuesday (start of sectional), even though you’re not going to want to hear this, is most important than tonight. She was like, ‘Okay, I got it. I got it.’ We got caught in that little bit of chaos on the third quarter and they were able to get a two-, three-, four-point lead, she said, ‘I want to try it.’ So we put her back in in the fourth quarter.’”
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Toppen’s return helped alleviate the scoring burden on senior Kate Thomas, who had all but a point in the third period to keep her team within a possession of the Bombers. She had eight of KV’s nine points in the third and finished with a team-high 13, all coming in the second half.
“She was phenomenal,” Bradley said of Thomas, a three-year starter. “She was gutsy. I told them after the game, in the two years I’ve been here, that is my favorite game now. Between the foul trouble and the injuries, and the injuries weren’t exclusive to Lilly. We’ve dealt with them all year. There were times where we could have quit. We were like, ‘What else could go wrong. Now they’re scoring.’ But we just kept fighting and kept fighting, which just shows the resiliency of this group.”
Thomas had two quick baskets in the fourth quarter to give the Kougars a lead they would not relinquish, even as the Bombers (12-9) continued to hoist up more shots. Rensselaer took 61 shots in the game — or 33 more than KVHS — but hit just 16 for 26%.
Bombers coach Wes Radtke wasn’t surprised to see Toppen limp her way back in the game late.
“She gave them a little bit of a spark,” he said. “I felt it was a good morale booster for them. She’s a hard-nosed kid. I knew at some point, if it wasn’t too serious, she was going to be back in the game because that’s the type of kid she is. I don’t blame her. This is her county rival, she’s going to play hard and it’s her senior year as well. I expected her to be able to walk back on the court or crawl, knowing that kid. Credit to her and I’m glad she’s okay.”
With Toppen out for nearly three quarters of action, KV got clutch efforts from junior Olivia Plummer, who hit 8 of 10 free throws and a pair of field goals for 12 points. Junior Juliet Starr came off the bench to knock down all six of her free throw attempts, including four in the game’s final minute to stave off a comeback effort by the Bombers.
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“We practice free throws a lot and that helped,” Thomas said. “And when we actually make our free throws, we win.”
Junior Maddy Murray had one of the game’s biggest shots, knocking down a 3-point basket midway through the fourth quarter to push her team’s lead to seven points.
Bradley praised the play of both Starr and Plummer for stepping up their game.
“(Plummer) came up with a couple of offensive rebounds. She knocked down her free throws. She had some big minutes,” he said.
Radtke said his team had plenty of chances to extend its lead with Toppen out of the lineup, but missed several shots at the rim.
“We had plenty of opportunities when she was out,” he said. We just didn’t finish. It wasn’t just one kid, it was a number of them. We had plenty of looks. We need to take advantage of that, especially when their best player is out. We didn’t jump on that.”
Sophomore Taylor Van Meter had a game-high 22 points for RCHS, hitting 6 of 19 shots and 10 of 13 free throws. She added nine rebounds and seven steals while stepping into passing lanes in her team’s full-court and half-court trapping defenses.
The Bombers — who honored their lone senior, Lola Chamness, on senior night prior to the game — were able to force 21 turnovers, but didn’t convert many of those into points. KVHS forced 17 turnovers.
Thomas said her team had to switch its focus with Toppen on the sidelines for most of the gam.
“We basically had to focus on defense, get good stops and that would lead into offense,” she said. “We were getting really rushed and we wanted to slow it down to actually run our stuff.”
Both junior Sarah Kaufman and freshman Kamri Rowland had eight points each for RCHS. Rowland added eight rebounds and three steals.
Rensselaer will host Hebron in its final regular season contest before next week’s Class 3A sectional at Benton Central. KVHS will face Portage Thursday in preparation for a Class 4A sectional at Lowell.