COAL CITY – If Joliet Catholic junior guard Jalen Jackson can lead the East Suburban Catholic in scoring and make the all-conference team, why couldn’t he drop 29 points on Sandwich?
Jackson, who averaged 20.1 points in ESCC wars, hit 9 of 15 shots, all 10 free throw attempts and scored 29 Monday night to lead the Hilltoppers to a 57-49 victory over Sandwich in the quarterfinals of the Class 3A Coal City Regional.
The win advances JCA (16-13) to Wednesday’s 6 p.m. semifinal against No. 1 seed Lincoln-Way West.
That was the scenario a year ago – West was the No. 1 seed – and the Hilltoppers won to jump-start a run to the sectional finals. The Warriors, however, prevailed when the teams collided this season in the Romeoville Christmas Classic.
Sandwich (11-18), coached by former Seneca and Lewis standout Brennan Callahan, hit eight 3-pointers to stay close.
Sophomore guard Jackson Smith was especially troublesome, connecting on 6 of 12 from beyond the arc and finishing with 24 points.
“It was a little frustrating when that kid was hitting those 3s,” Jackson said. “We had to keep our head, not let their shooters get too hot.”
“In the second half, we got a little more ball pressure, and they started missing those 3s,” JCA coach Joe Gura said. “Then, after we got a little bit of a lead, they hit a couple more.”
The Hilltoppers’ sixth man, sophomore Pete Ragen, was out with illness. And center Luke Mander played on a tender ankle. He had not been practicing, and Gura was not sure before the game how long he would be able to go.
Senior Kevin Matuszewski supplied good minutes off the bench; and sophomore Jack Surin, whose dad played for Gura at Lockport, played well when he got extended minutes in the second half. He hit a 3-pointer, scored five points and was solid defensively.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Jackson said of Surin. “He gave us solid minutes. He was clutch. He knocked down shots.”
It was a back-and-forth game of runs early as Sandwich had a 10-0 run to lead, 10-3, and JCA led, 12-10, after a 9-0 run.
But Sandwich went up, 18-12, because of to an 8-0 run before the Hilltoppers got back and tied it at 23 at the half on Matuszewski’s layup off a feed from Jackson.
The score was tied at 32 in the third quarter before the Hilltoppers’ 8-0 run – which included four Jackson free throws, a Surin basket and a Mander layup – resulted in a 40-32 lead the Hilltoppers did not relinquish.
“We had to go small in the second half,” Gura said. “That meant Surin in the game. We couldn’t have Mander guard a wing with his ankle. Surin played well offensively and defensively. We don’t just have a junior class – we have sophomores, too.”
Harold Davis, an All-ESCC honorable-mention selection, finished with 10 points for JCA. Drake Fellows had eight rebounds and Mander six.
“For Jalen [Jackson] to lead our conference, one of the best defensive conferences in the state, in scoring and Harold [Davis] to be honorable mention, those are very good kudos,” Gura said.
By quarter, Jackson scored eight, five, eight and eight points. For him to flirt with 30 and hit only one 3-pointer is not the norm, however. Instead, he took the ball to the basket and finished consistently.
“You have to take what the defense gives you,” Jackson said. “I try to take the shots I’m given, and my jump shot wasn’t falling.”