Girls regional basketball: Claire Bickett, Rock Falls exploit size advantage over Bureau Valley

Bickett scores 21 points, including 1,000th of career, to lead Rockets to 59-47 win in regional quarterfinals

Rock Falls senior Claire Bickett is joined by her family celebrating scoring her 1,000-career point in the Rockets' 59-47 win in regional quarterfinal play at Bureau Valley on Saturday night.

MANLIUS – The Rock Falls Rockets had a decisive size advantage on the Bureau Valley Storm in Saturday’s Class 2A Alleman Regional quarterfinal Saturday night at the Storm Cellar.

They checked in with three girls at 5-foot-10 or taller and another at 5-9. The Storm have two varsity girls listed at 5-9, and one of them, junior Izabella Birkey, comes in at 5-9 on a “Friday night when she’s dressed in heels,” Storm coach Matt Wasilewski said.

And the Rockets exploited it.

Senior 5-11 forward Claire Bickett took her game inside to score 21 points, and senior 5-9 post Taylor Reyna added 15 points as the Rockets overpowered the host Storm 59-47.

“That was kind of our advantage, and it has been for a lot of games,” Rock Falls coach Dan Herrera said. “It’s taken an awful long time for those three posts or even our four post, just to trust each other sometimes. Because, somebody’s got to handle the ball, especially if I got four posts and one guard.”

“We figured they’d play zone most of the time, but they switched it up a little bit,” Bickett said. “I think we did a good job on the offensive rebounds. That was the biggest thing and where all the points came from.”

Bureau Valley junior Taylor Neuhalfen finds herself surrounded by Rock Falls Rockets Peyton Smit (24) and Elizabeth Lombardo (1) in Saturday's regional game at the Storm Cellar.

Bickett needed 19 points to reach the 1,000-point mark and got it with two to spare. She said it meant a little more to do it in the gym her dad, former BV coach and current BV athletic director Brad Bickett, made famous. He sat at midcourt with the rest of the Bickett family, wearing a BV shirt while on the job.

“I think it was pretty cool. He works here, and a lot of people know him and know I’m his daughter,” she said. “We gave him crap wearing the Bureau Valley shirt because obviously a lot of my friends know him growing up with me.”

Herrera said it’s a nice accomplishment for Bickett because she often faces some double and triple teams.

“The girls do a very good job of finding her and getting her the ball,” he said. “Claire is a little bit of a mismatch. She can handle the ball a little bit, but she’s more comfortable around the basket. And we’ve been asking a lot out of her the last couple years and she continues to shine.”

BV senior Kate Stoller drew the Storm even at 35 with a pair of free throws with 52 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Rockets scored the final four points, including a buzzer-beater by Bickett to take a 39-35 lead at quarter’s end.

Rock Falls took that momentum into the fourth quarter, scoring the first eight points, including a drive by Reyna and a 3-pointer by point guard Elizabeth Lombardo for a 47-35 edge.

The Storm (14-16) got no closer than six (49-43) as the Rockets outscored them 10-4 to win going away.

“It means everything. We knew it would be tough. They carry a good crowd and a good atmosphere we haven’t experienced,” Bickett said. “I think coming in here, we kind of got excited. It means a lot and we knew what we were playing for.”

Wasiliewski said the Storm tried their best to overcome their size disadvantage.

“They hit a couple of outside shots, and we were willing to give those up. But they are so much bigger and stronger inside,” he said. “We had a hard time rebounding the ball. I think they had four or five putbacks off missed free throws, and you just can’t allow that. And that was basically the tale of the game right there.

“The girls played hard. Can’t question effort. Can’t question determination. They’re beat up. We just don’t have that kind of size. We try to make up for it, and sometimes it works. There in the second half with Bickett, they recognized they could just pound her down low and take advantage of that.

“You have to hand it to Rock Falls. We didn’t beat ourselves. They beat us.”

Bureau Valley enjoyed a 14-7 lead late in the second quarter when Stoller and Linzie Cady hit back-to-back 3s.

Bickett scored twice to draw the Rockets within 14-11 at the end of the first.

Nicolette Udell scored on a pair of putbacks and Reyna scored on a drive to push the Rockets in front at 19-17. They took a 25-21 lead at halftime with BV’s Taylor Neuhalfen dropping a pair of free pitches when she was fouled in the act of shooting at the buzzer.

Bureau Valley's Libby Endress tries to pass away from Rock Falls' Rock Falls' Elizabeth Lombardo (1) and Claire Bickett in Saturday's regional game at the Storm Cellar.

Stoller, who received a big postgame hug from her sister, Kyra, a former Storm player, led the Storm with 13 points in her final game in the Storm Columbia Blue and Navy. Neuhalfen was right behind her with 12, while senior point guard Kate Salisbury, who went over 1,000-points recently, added eight.

The Rockets shot 55% (22-40) from the field and outrebounded the Storm 33-21. BV shot 30% (16-53) from the field.

Wasilewski said it will be tough to lose their three seniors – Salisbury, Stoller and Cady – “because they put in a lot of time and they earned their names up on the [record] board.”

Next up for the Rockets (11-20) is a date with top seed and No. 5 state-ranked Alleman (26-4) on its home court in Tuesday’s first semifinal at 6 p.m. in Rock Island. They played the Pioneers early in the season, and it wasn’t pretty, losing 48-9.

“It’s going to be a tougher task for sure,” Herrera said. “Looking at the scouting report from that film we played one of the worse games. We certainly struggled. And we all know that. It’s right back to the drawing board, and here we go. We’re going to give it our best shot.”