Dynamic second-half defensive effort gives Trail Blazers momentum heading into postseason


John Wood Community College sophomore guard Joshua Talton gets in good defensive position during the Trail Blazers' 74-59 victory over Illinois Central College on Saturday at the Student Activity Center. | Matt Schuckman photo

QUINCY — A simple one-word answer sufficed for everyone.

The John Wood Community College men’s basketball team turned a two-point halftime advantage Saturday afternoon into a 74-59 Mid-West Athletic Conference victory over Illinois Central College to wrap up the No. 3 seed in the upcoming Region 24 postseason tournament.

So what exactly did the Trail Blazers do differently in the second half?

“Defense,” freshman point guard Jordan Shelton said. “I have to say defense.”

An echo followed.

“Defense,” freshman forward Jake Wallingford said. “Prioritizing defense is the main key.”

Joshua Talton tweaked his answer a little.

“We just started playing team basketball to be honest,” the sophomore guard said. “And defense. We got after it.”

The Cougars shot better from the field in the second half, knocking down 45.8 percent of their shots, but they were one-and-done on most occasions and turned the ball over six times. The 18-9 rebounding edge in the second half, along with forcing ICC into 14 empty possessions, enabled the Trail Blazers to build some rhythm offensively.

JWCC shot 51.6 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3-point range and endured just nine empty possessions in the second half.

“We really guarded,” JWCC coach Brad Hoyt said. “That’s a team that you have to guard so they can’t set themselves defensively. When you can get stops, it gives you the chance to have somewhat of a flow offensively. I kept telling them, ‘You guys have to keep playing hard defensively, and I have to try to figure out how to help you offensively.’

“We saw a couple shots go in. (Wallingford) made a couple big ones in that initial run. It really got us going. And when Jordan Shelton gets going, he really gets going.”

Shelton scored 18 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, going 3 of 6 from 3-point range. He also had two assists, two steals and two blocked shots.

“I love that we won and love that we finished strong,” Shelton said. “We really put a statement out there that we can play with anyone.”

The Trail Blazers (17-12, 8-4 MWAC) are going to find that out in short order. They will face sixth-seeded Rend Lake in the Region 24 quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Student Activity Center.

“Coach always talks about how our next game is our biggest game,” Talton said. “We went through a rough period, losing five in a row before we got on this roll. It’s a big momentum shift. We wanted to be winning going into the postseason, unlike last year when we didn’t. That didn’t go too well.”

A year ago, the Trail Blazers lost four of their final five regular-season games before suffering a first-round postseason exit in a loss to Spoon River College.

This time, after losing three times by four points or less during that five-game skid, the Trail Blazers responded with confidence. They beat teams seeded second, fourth and fifth for the Region 24 tournament during this season-ending four-game win streak.

That includes ICC, which is seeded second and beat JWCC by 21 at the start of February.

“To know we can compete with them and compete with anyone in this region is huge,” said Wallingford, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds.

One major concern for the Trail Blazers is the health of sophomore forward Logan Robbins, who suffered a serious ankle sprain three minutes into Saturday’s game. X-rays revealed he did not break the ankle, but he left the Student Activity Center on crutches with his foot and leg in a boot.

His postseason status will be determined at a later date, but the Trail Blazers know they can rally around each other to get the job done.

“We pick each other up,” Talton said. “We are truly in this together and for each other.”

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