Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2013, 9:55 pm

Rocks steal their way to win over Wheaton North

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By Daniel Makarewicz,

Retreating on defense as the fourth-quarter clock ticked, Trae Babers admitted "a key possession" needed a key stop.

"It was a must to get the ball," the Rock Island senior basketball player said.

Seconds later, he delivered.

Picking the pocket of Wheaton North guard Jaylen Howze on Saturday evening, Babers got the steal, took four dribbles and converted the uncontested layup with 70 seconds left in regulation. The basket provided the Rocks with the lead they needed to get a 61-56 victory over Wheaton North in the Quad-Cities/Wheaton Shootout at Wharton Field House.

"I just waited for him to switch to his left hand," Babers said. "I took advantage of it right away."

Without it, Rocky (16-4) appeared in trouble.

Trailing 56-55 after Andrew Zelis' layup with 1:47 remaining, the Rocks worked the ball around the perimeter while looking for the go-ahead shot. Brian Richardson drove the left lane, but lost the handle on the ball. Howze quickly picked it up, but immediately had the ball stolen by Babers near the left elbow.

In one sequence, Babers had the tide-turning steal and converted what proved to be the game-winning basket.

"We have guys who are going to keep competing and make plays," Rocky coach Thom Sigel said. "Even if we're not doing things right, we keep playing. He did a great job of continuing to play."

From there, the Rocks held Wheaton North (10-10) scoreless in the final minute. The game was sealed when Keenan Shorter intercepted a Wheaton North pass near midcourt with Rocky holding a 59-56 lead and :05.2 seconds left.

Shorter then sent a pass to Babers, who converted a layup as time expired.

"We wanted to be solid defensively," said Babers, who finished with 11 points, four assists and two steals. "We were focusing on defense before the game -- just getting stops. We wanted to be physical and solid."

Sound defense led to thievery.Rocky forced 19 turnovers, but tallied 17 steals as every starter had at least one. Better yet, they converted those turnovers into 22 points.

"We played position defense better, and we were in position to get the steals," Sigel said. "Sometimes we just want to get steals when we're not in position. There's a difference."

C.J. Carr grabbed seven steals and Robert Johnson added three more. Those defensive plays allowed Rocky to overcome inconsistent shooting as it converted 38.9 percent (21 of 54) of its field-goal attempts. Included in that stretch were two wide-open layups that were missed.

Other than the final score, the Rocks never led by more than three points as they suffered offensive lulls in each quarter.

"We didn't shoot it real well," said Sigel, who also received double-digit performances from Carr (19 points) and Shorter (10). "Our shooters need to make shots, and they will. We had some looks, but we couldn't string enough stops together when we needed it."

Wheaton North led by as many as eight points in the second quarter before settling for a 35-30 halftime lead. Rocky did find its form in the second half, but allowed the Falcons to stay close as they kept hitting clutch shots.

Joe Wayhart's 3-pointer and Zelis' layup on back-to-back fourth-quarter possessions gave Wheaton North the 56-55 lead with 1:47 left.

After that, Rocky got six consecutive defensive stops.

"If you struggle a little bit in the offensive end, you've got to string some (defensive stops) together. We didn't string them together," Sigel said. "The nice thing was when we really needed one, we'd get it."

Babers' steal was evidence of that.