ROMEOVILLE – When Bolingbrook boys basketball coach Rob Brost walked into the locker room, he told his team: “You guys just won an epic basketball game.
“I’ve been coaching here 11 years, and that without a doubt is one of the best games, if not the best.”
The Raiders, seeded No. 1 in the Class 4A Romeoville Sectional, met No. 4 Joliet Central in Tuesday night’s semifinal. It took two overtimes to decide which team would meet the winner of Wednesday night’s Lincoln-Way East versus West Aurora semifinal.
That Bolingbrook eventually prevailed, 94-91, tells nothing about Tuesday’s game other than which team finished with more points.
“You have to give Larry [Thompson, the Central coach] and his kids all the credit for making this game what it was,” Brost said.
“This is right at the top of the list,” said Bolingbrook senior guard Kaleb Thornton, who tied the game with two free throws with 3.8 seconds left in regulation, tied it again on a step-back 3-pointer with 0:19 left in the first overtime, scored four points in the second overtime and scored 29 of his 31 points in the second half and two overtimes.
“They are a real tough team,” Thornton said of the Steelmen. “You have to credit coach Thompson and what he does with them.
“It’s hard when you’re playing a team like them in a game like this to keep your emotions under control. But you have to. Overall, we did a pretty good job of that.”
As quick as Thornton is in helping create turnovers on the defensive end, and as productive as he was offensively, he relinquished game scoring honors to Central’s 6-4 senior forward Ryan Saunders, who scored 28 of his 33 points in the second half and two overtimes.
“Everyone saw both teams out there tonight,” Saunders said. “Both teams were battling all the way.
“We had to stay correct out there. We had to play Joliet Central basketball, and for the most part we did. The score just did not end up in our favor.”
The Steelmen (23-6) got off to leads of 10-0 and 14-2 and were in control at halftime, 29-19.
“The worst first half we have played,” Brost said. “And we do it against a team with 24 wins or whatever they have. That’s the bad news. The good news was we have a team that is capable of coming back from that sort of deficit, and we did.”
The Raiders (22-6) turned up the pressure in the third quarter, getting first as close as 34-29, then with 6-5 junior forward Marquis Ratcliff (10 points) playing a key role off the bench, finished the quarter on an 11-2 run to get within 46-45.
Bolingbrook’s Joseph Yesufu, playing with a bandaged, damaged left thumb suffered in practice Monday, made four 3-pointers in the second half and finished with 20 points. One of his threes 10 seconds into the fourth quarter gave the Raiders their first lead at 48-46.
It went back and forth until the final minute of the fourth quarter. Yesufu rebounded a missed shot along the baseline to the left of the basket. One official called a foul, another said he stepped out of bounds. Meanwhile, a scuffle ensued, and three technical fouls were called, two on Bolingbrook and one on Central.
So, the Steelmen’s Don Joachim, who scored 26 points, went to the line and made two free throws. Off the ensuing inbounds pass, Joachim drove to the basket and converted a three-point play to tie it.
Thornton made one of two free throws with 0:35 left for a 66-65 Bolingbrook lead, but Cameron Blackmon (13 points) nailed a huge 3-pointer with 0:05 left for a 68-66 lead.
Central’s crowd went berserk. But Thornton was fouled after taking the inbounds pass and made both free throws to force overtime.
Saunders’ tip-in late in the first overtime gave the Steelmen a three-point lead, but Thornton’s step-back 3 after a Central turnover tied it again.
The Steelmen missed six free throws in the two overtimes and that played into the final result.
“You have to give Bolingbrook credit,” Thompson said. “They didn’t make their shots early. But they’re a great team. They have many, many weapons. They found a way to get back in it, they hit 3-pointers and they got the ball to the hot man.
“Unfortunately, when they got hot, we started to turn the ball over against their pressure. Nobody wants to foul with five seconds left when you have the lead, and nobody wants to miss free throws. It just didn’t work out.”
But as Thompson noted, the last two times the teams met, Central wilted under Bolingbrook’s pressure. “They found our breaking point the last two times,” Thompson said. “This time, we played until the end.”
That made for a night they will be talking about in the Joliet area for a long time to come.