ROCKTON- When the Associated Press released its Illinois boys basketball poll Wednesday afternoon, it showed Rockford Jefferson as the 10th-ranked team in Class 4A.
Wednesday night, the Hononegah Indians found out why.
The J-Hawks, favored to win their first ever NIC-10 title, showcased pressure defense, raw athleticism and shooting prowess to pull away from the Indians, winning 67-54.
The loss dropped Hononegah to 1-2 in NIC-10 play and 4-3 overall, while Jefferson moved to 3-0 in conference play and 6-1 overall, with their only loss coming to defending state champion and current second-ranked Whitney Young by an 80-72 margin.
The Indians were worthy adversaries until a key sequence that occurred in the third quarter. Trailing 32-30 with 2:53 to play, Hononegah's Kameron Kolberg was called for a foul after running through a screen.
Kolberg's infraction, which seemed to come just before Jefferson's Qullin Dixon sunk a three-pointer, was instead ruled to have come just before the shot, giving the J-Hawks the basket along with the ball back.
Hononegah coach Mike Miller earned a technical foul shortly after the whistle. Garrett sank two free throws, and when the J-Hawks converted two more free throws a few seconds later after another Hononegah foul, the Indians suddenly trailed 39-30 with 2:39 to play.
"I don't need to be getting technicals, but I knew that was the game right there," Miller said. "There's no way that the foul occurred after the shot. The screen was set to get the shooter free. The Jefferson bench did a good job of yelling a the refs to count the basket, and that's what they ended up doing."
Hononegah would never get close than seven points again. Jefferson went on a lightning-fast 9-0 run in the fourth quarter to extend its lead from 55-42 to 64-42 and remove all doubt as to the outcome.
The three-headed J-Hawk monster of Dixon (29 points), Terry Ford (15) and MyQuion Garrett (10 points) scored enough on their own to defeat the Indians. Jefferson sank nine three-pointers and kept the Indians' offense off-balance the entire evening.
"We just got really lazy in the second half," Hononegah senior Brayden Hennis said. "We were very confident coming into the game, and we played a great first half on both sides. They just moved the ball really well and started to get up and down the floor on us after that."
The Indians began the game in nightmare fashion, turning the ball over five times in their first six possessions as Jefferson sprinted to an 8-2 lead. Hononegah regained its composure by scoring the next six points and eventually took a 25-23 lead into intermission thanks in large measure to 11 points from Hennis.
After another hoop by Hennis opened the second half, Jefferson scored seven of the game's next 10 points before the fateful seven-point possession.
"They have three of the best players in the conference," Miller said. "Those guys are lights-out. We had a terrible start to the game, and they exposed us early. But we fought back and did some things that gave us a chance. I thought our defense was outstanding until late in the game, when I think we kind of wilted.
"We still haven't found our offense. The ball kind of sticks and we just aren't executing or finishing at the basket."
Hennis finished the game with a team-best 13 points. Nick Pierson added 12 and Kolberg finished with 10.
The Indians will travel to Harlem Friday.