LANSING | When you think of intimidating places to play, names like The Swamp, The Big House, and Cameron Indoor Stadium come to mind. But tonight Illiana Christian could have given them all a run for their money.
With bitter rival Chicago Christian in town and the gym full to capacity, the Vikings (15-10) fed off their fans to get a 64-58 win over the Knights.
“We have the best fans in the state, they’re our sixth man and we feed off them,” senior Caleb Jonkman said. “There was a great atmosphere tonight, these fans make us play better and I really just want to thank them for their support.”
With a roster loaded with sophomores and facing a hostile environment, it would have been easy for Chicago Christian (5-14) to fold under the pressure. They did anything but, opening the game with a 6-0 run and taking a 16-14 lead into the second quarter.
“I told the guys coming in that records didn’t matter in a game like this,” Illiana coach Thomas Roozeboom said. “With the history between these two teams and all the hype coming in, I’m proud of my guys. They made some nice runs and we could have folded but we countered every time.”
After watching the Knights push the lead to 23-18 midway through the second quarter, the Vikings responded with a 15-3 run of their own behind Jonkman, who had 14 of his game-high 24 points in the first half.
“It’s a big rivalry so we knew it would be a go-at-it type of game,” Jonkman said. “Their defense was good and smothered us, but I think we adjusted well. Every time they went on a run, we had the mental toughness to punch back.”
After seeing another Chicago Christian run tie the game at 41 heading into the fourth quarter, the Vikings settled down and used a trapping defense to force turnovers and push the lead to eight at 55-47.
“This was a great atmosphere for our guys,” Roozeboom said. “Both schools have great fans and there was real support from the communities. We made the last run at an opportune time. I’m just really proud of how they finished tonight.
The Knights would cut the lead to three in the final minute. But getting a boost from their fans, the Vikings would let them get no closer, answering the bell one more time to seal the victory with a pair of Jonkman free-throws.
“We started the fourth quarter in the bonus, so I was looking to attack,” Jonkman said. “I wanted to drive and kick-out to the shooters, but the defense didn’t collapse so I just went to the hoop.”