ROCKFORD - After spending much of the past six weeks controlling their competition, the Hononegah Indians saw the tables turned on them Wednesday night.
The Indians, who carried a six-game winning streak into their IHSA Class 4A regional semifinal game at host Rockford Auburn, fell to the relentless Knights 70-62.
Auburn's physical style and relentless pressing defense were too much for Hononegah to overcome, at least on this night.
"We picked a bad night to play poorly," Miller said. "We've been probably the best team in the area for the last two months, and we weren't the best team tonight. A lot of that credit goes to Auburn. We had to withstand the first 10 seconds of their pressure, and we talked about the importance of trusting your teammates. Well, we had 15 turnovers in the first half alone and there was a lot of bodies around the ball constantly. If that's the case, somebody's open. We didn't share the ball very well in the first half."
After gaining an early advantage, the Knights made a run in the middle of the first quarter to take the lead, and thought the game would remain close for the remainder of the contest, the Indians were never able to jump back in front.
Hononegah trailed 17-15 after a quarter and 33-28 at halftime despite the best efforts of senior Kameron Kolberg, who scored 14 points in the first half. The Knights ended the half on a put-back right before the buzzer, a fitting conclusion to a half in which the Knights controlled the rebounding battle.
Caleb Donaldson ended the third quarter with a flourish, getting a steal and a dunk right before the buzzer sounded to cut the Knights' lead to 42-40 heading into the final period.
But Auburn again took advantage of critical Hononegah mistakes and turned those errors into layups, an issue that frustrated Miller.
"Defensively, we respected their shooters way more than we should have. We told them the ball needed to be kept out of the paint and they needed to make threes. The ball was in the paint constantly, and they shot layups all game. It's too bad this was the way we finished."
After trailing by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter, the Indians made a final run, capped a Kolberg trey that cut the advantage to 58-56 with 1:50 to play.
But Hononegah missed its next three pointers, Auburn made its free throws and a terrific season came to a close.
"I told the kids in the locker room that one bad night doesn't erase two great months," Miller said. "After we beat East for our 20th win, we talked about how we were 1-3 in conference play and under .500 overall. To finish with 20 wins is a great accomplishment for these kids. They gave great effort all year long, and it's just unfortunate tonight didn't go the way we wanted it to."
Kolberg led the Indians with 28 points, and picked up his 1,000th career point in the third quarter. He was the only Indian to provide a consistent scoring punch throughout the game, though Donaldson came on late to finish with 12 points and Pierson added 10.
"Scoring 1,000 points in an incredible accomplishment," Miller said. "He's got big things ahead for himself at UW-Parkside. He was a great player for us and was a wonderful kid to be around every day."
Kolberg said the Knights' defense was the key to the game.
"Some nights you come into these games and they are called really tight," Kolberg said. "Other times you can't get a call to save your life. But we've dealt with that before, and you can't blame the loss on that. We've just got to be stronger with the ball."
Although disappointed with the first-round exit, Kolberg said he was proud of what his team accomplished.
"We finished the season really strong," Kolberg said. "We didn't just lose a bunch of games and then come in here and lose this one. I don't think many people saw this season coming. It was a bad night to play bad, but I'm still happy with our final record."
The Knights move on to take on Rockford East in the regional final Friday night.