Redbirds win conference opener

Tom Batters
Kyle Sasso

Senior guard Kyle Sasso scored 21 points and three other players scored in double figures as Metamora beat East Peoria, 67-57, Friday night in its Mid-Illini Conference opener.

The Redbirds (4-2) surged to an 11-0 lead and never looked back, even though East Peoria cut the lead to six points late in the second half.

Senior guard Alex Nelson (10 points) made seven of nine free throws in the fourth quarter to prevent the Raiders from getting any closer.

“Overall, I’m pleased,” said Metamora coach Jim Youngman. “I thought we fell asleep on defense at times, which allowed East Peoria to get back in the game. And, our offense got a little stale there for a few minutes. But, it was a good win for us. Alex made some big free throws. He’s the guy we wanted to have the ball in those situations late in the game”

The next night, also at home, the Redbirds lost a heartbreaker, 57-56, to Galesburg, despite having a 14-point lead with 4:35 left.

Against East Peoria, the Redbirds featured a balanced offensive attack. Senior Kyle Heck had 13 points and senior Chris Donner had 10 points. Sasso scored in bunches from the outside and drove to the basket for layups.

“Kyle (Sasso) had a great all-around game,” Youngman said. “He made great decisions.”

Heck said the starters (all seniors) have a stronger cohesiveness than they did last year, and, as a result, expectations are high.

“We share the ball really well, and we all understand the game,” Heck said. “We’ve all been looking forward to this season, and we have set high goals.”

Heck credited Donner for shutting down East Peoria big man Dylan Sparkman, who is 6’10.”

“Sparkman is tough to defend, but Chris (Donner) did a great job, and we helped as a team, too,” Heck said.

Sparkman had 26 points and 12 rebounds, but he missed several shots, including a couple  layups, in the first quarter, against tight defense from Donner.

Metamora jumped out to an 11-0 lead and East Peoria did not score until 3:15 left in the first quarter. Metamora led, 20-6, at the end of the first quarter.

East Peoria climbed back in the game, but the Redbirds knocked down just enough free throws to put it away.

The Redbirds were only 15 of 28 from the free throw line.

“That’s a 20-point win if we make more of our free throws,” Youngman said. “We’ll need to get better at that.”

Heck, Sasso, senior Brett McKinney and senior Nick Gaa all had three-pointers in the first quarter to go along with six points in the paint from Donner. Most of Donner’s points came off offensive rebounds.

The Redbirds outrebounded the Raiders, 33-25.

Raiders senior point guard Joe Kelch had just six points (2 for 9 from the field).

“Kelch is a four-year starter. He’s a dangerous player,” Youngman said. “East Peoria has a very good team. I thought we came out and set the tone with our defense, though.”

The Redbirds passed the ball effectively and frequently found open looks in the paint for easy shots.

“Good passers make good shooters,” Youngman said. “We played unselfish basketball tonight. We passed the ball really well, and it was fun to watch.”

The Redbirds have eight seniors on the roster, which, Youngman said, makes a big difference in close games.

“I can look away for a minute, and I don’t have to worry. They just go out and do what they are supposed to do out there,” he said. “They have a lot of heart, too. They are a lot of fun to coach.”

Metamora hosts Pekin at 7 p.m. Friday.