MARENGO – For the better part of three quarters Saturday night, Richmond-Burton struggled to find any offensive rhythm, hurried out of its comfort zone by Grant's tenacious tempo.
The Rockets tried to keep pace but were never able to erase what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. But for the second straight night, Sam Kaufman kept R-B in the game, finding ways to hit one timely shot after another.
Trailing by two points entering the fourth quarter of the E.C. Nichols Tournament championship game, though, the Rockets finally were able to get over the hump. And once they did, everything changed, allowing R-B to hold off Grant in a thrilling 68-65 win.
And while nothing seemed to go exactly as planned for the Rockets, the finishing stretch more than made up for the frustration R-B was forced to play through for much of the night.
"We were tough enough and we had the mental fortitude to win the game," said Kaufman, who scored a game-high 29 points.
"As soon as we got [the score] tied, I think we just had this feeling we were going to be able to take it the rest of the way."
A Joe St. Pierre dunk early in the fourth quarter drew R-B (8-3) even. But Grant, which got 25 points from Matt Malmberg, quickly pushed its lead back up to four. But a quick 9-0 Rockets run, capped by a Kaufman 3-point field goal, gave R-B a 64-59 lead with 2:47 remaining.
The rest came down to the Rockets holding on for dear life.
"We finally got the lead and were able to do some things a little differently with the lead," R-B coach Brandon Creason said.
Grant cut the deficit to 66-64 with 31 seconds remaining, again forcing the Rockets into some turnovers. But R-B was able to extend the lead on late free throws by Danny Rygiel and Brian Wells to hold on for the three-point victory.
Kaufman played a major role, giving the Rockets some level of consistency when Grant's speed and pressure kept the Rockets from doing what they wanted to offensively.
"He's unstoppable," said St. Pierre, who scored 14 points in the win to go along with nine by Mike Kaska. "He gets the ball and ... he's just unstoppable."
The victory not only gave R-B the tournament championship, but the five-game winning streak during the holiday event provided a big dose of experience to an otherwise young team. In addition to knocking off rival Marengo on Friday night to reach Saturday night's championship game, learning to handle pressure like the Rockets had to against Grant will – Creason believes – go a long way once R-B starts Big Northern Conference play.
"As a coach, every Christmas tournament, you want to take a step forward," Creason said. "And I would say we certainly took a step forward."