JOLIET – The Joliet Catholic Academy boys basketball team had a dual purpose entering Tuesday night’s nonconference game against Manteno.
Get another victory, and prepare for Thursday night’s trip to Niles to face highly regarded East Suburban Catholic Conference foe Notre Dame.
For a half, things were a bit iffy as Manteno held its own against the red-hot Hilltoppers. But coach Joe Gura’s team turned up the defense in the third quarter, which created an offensive explosion and a 55-31 victory.
“Coach challenged me to be more aggressive and attack the hoop,” senior guard Jack Surin said of a third quarter, where he scored on three drives to the basket and a 3-pointer. “I the first quarter and part of the second quarter, I was passive. In the second half, we answered the challenge. We scored off our defense.”
The Hilltoppers (9-7), who have won six of their last seven, led at the half, 24-17, after breaking away from a 7-7 tie with 2:18 left in the first quarter.
JCA senior forward Pete Ragen knocked down a 3-pointer to open the third quarter and ignite 14-0 run that included Surin’s three driving layups. When Surin and senior guard Brendon Wills nailed 3-pointers as the third quarter wound down, JCA enjoyed a comfortable 46-26 lead.
“Give Manteno credit,” Gura said. “They were trying to take away everything we were doing. It was our defense that kept us in the game in the first half, and our defense that turned the game around in the second half.
“We came out in the third quarter with a fire. I like the way we responded in the second half. It doesn’t matter who we play, we have to play defense. We’re not the most skilled offensive team, but we’ve gotten some big wins because we have played defense and stuck with it.”
“Coach said before the game that defensive end was one of the phases of the game where we had to win,” Wills said.
Wills hit 3 of 5 shots from 3-point range and finished with a team-high 15 points. Ragen chipped in 13 and Surin 11.
“He’s did a great job,” Surin said of Wills. “He’s very valuable to our team.”
The Hilltoppers hit 8 of 11 shots in the decisive third quarter and 21 of 41 overall for 51.2 percent. They also held a 28-19 rebounding edge as Surin grabbed seven, Donavan Finch six and Ragen five.
“I had a couple other games where I shot it pretty well, but I got on a good roll tonight,” said Wills, who shares a guard spot with Dexter Spencer, with either the potential starter on a give night. “I just go with what’s going good.
“It really doesn’t matter whether I start or come off the bench, and I’m sure Dexter would have the same answer. We just have to be who we are when we get in the game and play with confidence.”
Wills said this is a good time for JCA to face the challenge of playing at Notre Dame.
“We’re hot now,” he said. “We’re playing some of the best basketball we have played all year, so this is a good time to get them.”
“Notre Dame is always a tough game,” Surin said. “We have to go up there with the approach that we are going to take the game to them.”
Surin said he liked having a nonconference Tuesday game two days before traveling to Niles.
“It was nice to come out and get the reps Tuesday, especially for the bench guys,” he said.
Gura said that while Notre Dame is a tough assignment, so is everyone the Hilltoppers have remaining on the East Suburban Catholic portion of the schedule.
“Every conference game, our opponent has a tremendous record and has beaten somebody good,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who we play, though, we have to play defense if we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”