JOLIET – From the time it went on a 10-0 run to end the first half with a 28-12 lead, the Joliet Central boys basketball team was coasting toward another victory over Plainfield Central.
However, the Wildcats decided to make it interesting in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, getting as close as six points in the final minute before the Steelmen put it away, 63-55.
"A lot of credit goes to Plainfield Central," said Joliet Central coach Lawrence Thompson Jr., whose team is zeroing in on the Southwest Prairie Conference championship. "They were down 15 and kept battling. That's the third time we played them, and that can be an issue.
"They talk about how it's hard to beat a team a third time in the postseason. Well, it doesn't have to be the postseason. You have to maintain your focus against a team that scraps and comes at you, a team that we had beaten by 20 twice earlier. I don't think we were as focused as we should have been tonight."
Joliet Central (19-4, 11-0) will be at Oswego East on Friday night hoping to clinch the SPC title. Plainfield Central (9-14, 2-9) is attempting to avoid the cellar, but the Wildcats have been competitive.
On top of that, they played Tuesday without senior forward Matthews Morganfield, who injured a foot in last Saturday's 52-51 nonconference victory over Yorkville.
"Matthews is our 16 [points] and eight [rebounds] guy," Wildcats coach Gregg Bayer said. "He's our senior leader. He adds a huge dimension. But we battled minus him. Other guys had to step up."
Bayer said Morganfield is hoping to be back for Friday night's game against Romeoville, which lost to Oswego East on Tuesday to put Joliet Central three games up with three games left. Without him, the Wildcats never quit.
"At halftime, we told the guys the score is 0-0, and we want to win the third quarter and the fourth quarter," Bayer said. "We did that. That's a credit to our kids.
"Joliet Central is well coached and senior-laden. They have all the ingredients of a worthy conference champion."
The Wildcats, like so many of the Steelmen's opponents this season, were hurt by defensive pressure early on. They committed 12 first-half turnovers and made only 5 of 17 shots in falling behind 28-12.
"They force you out of your comfort zone," Bayer said. "They have 6-2 and 6-3 kids who are athletic and come running at you, and that affects your shots when you do get them."
Wildcats junior guard Maurice McCullum was 0 for 5 from the floor and scored one point in the first half. In the second half, he made four of his first five tries from 3-point range and scored 14 points to finish with 15. He also was the master of the long rebound, closing with a game-high 11 boards.
Tavari Johnson had one basket in the first half, two after three quarters, and scored 13 points in the fourth quarter – including four buckets in the final 1:01 – to finish with 17 points. Brandon Shomeaker chipped in eight.
For Joliet Central, Ryan Saunders totaled 13 points and seven rebounds. Johnny Fuller, Cameron Blackmon and Don Joachim all added 12. Joachim hit six straight free throws in the final 1:11, after the Steelmen had struggled from the line all night, to help end it.
"This was a case of not making free throws," Thompson said. "We could have put this away a lot sooner if we made free throws."
The Steelmen made 16 of 27 free throws in all. The Wildcats also missed their share, going 9 of 18.
Joliet Central did not play last weekend after Friday's game against Minooka was snowed out.
"We were really looking forward to that Minooka game," Thompson said. "I think we would have had a different mindset tonight if we had played Friday. Being off all weekend kind of threw everything off. Plainfield Central at least did have the Saturday game [against Yorkville]."
Despite their outstanding record, Thompson said he has a feeling Joliet Central might wind up fourth in the sectional seeding, which will be announced Thursday afternoon.
Assuming Bolingbrook and Lincoln-Way East are in the top two spots in either order – "We lost to both of them," Thompson noted – it should be the Steelmen and West Aurora in the next two spots in either order.
"We have the same number of losses against comparable schedules," Thompson said. "I guess it will come down to what the coaches think of our schedules.
"If we get the 4, we probably will have to beat Romeoville [the possible 5 seed] to win the regional. And that's if we get by one of those scrappy teams like Plainfield Central was tonight that will come after us."