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Sports

Herron: Raiders-Steelmen clash an all-time classic

ROMEOVILLE – I realize that Tuesday’s Class 4A Romeoville Sectional semifinal between Bolingbrook and Joliet Central just happened, but take it from someone who has been watching March Madness in this area for 40 years: This one will go down as one of the all-time classics.

In a contest that featured more twists and turns than a road that winds through the mountains, both the Raiders and Steelmen had their chances to punch their ticket to Friday’s 7 p.m. championship game against the winner of today’s other semifinal between Lincoln-Way East and West Aurora.

In the end, it was The Brook that moved a step closer to capturing a third sectional title in four years when it outscored Central in the second overtime period to claim a wild 94-91 victory before an enthusiastic crowd that seemed to enjoy every moment of the high drama.

While the game certainly can’t match the bizarre scene of both sides of fans celebrating after Joliet Catholic’s win over Lockport on the dubious full-court goaltending call at the final horn of the sectional title game played in the same gymnasium 30 years ago, this one no doubt matches or exceeds some of the many thrillers that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing during the past few seasons.

On the one hand, you had coach Rob Brost’s Raiders using a big burst late in the third quarter to get back into a contest where it trailed 10-0 from the outset.

And on the other, you had Lawrence Thompson Jr.’s Steelmen doing their best to hang onto the lead and trying to stay close to put themselves in a position to upset the favored Raiders.

Bolingbrook deservedly earned the sectional’s top seed after being ranked among the state’s top teams through the 2017 portion of its schedule but then understandably struggled after Kaleb Thornton suffered a finger injury. With him back in the lineup, the Raiders figured to be the area’s team to beat in the playoffs.

But as we’ve already seen demonstrated throughout the Raiders’ first two postseason games, squads weren’t going to make it easy and it certainly wasn’t in victories over Plainfield Central and host Lemont in regional play.

Meanwhile, the Steelmen were making their third straight sectional appearance, and came in seeded fourth. They also had their hands full in regional play, struggling with Yorkville before using a big late rally to win over host Oswego East in the regional final.

After losing so much scoring ability from last year’s team, they lost a heartbreaker to rival Joliet West in last year’s sectional semifinals. But despite bringing limited experience back, the Steelmen still won the Southwest Prairie Conference title and owned 23 victories heading into its clash with the
21-win Raiders.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching Thompson coach for 35 years from the time that he joined Bob Basarich on the Lockport staff. I was there when he put together the amazing run of three consecutive titles from 2006-08, a feat that had never been accomplished before or since by a Porters coach.

Even though many of those strong state showings demonstrated his outstanding coaching skills, this very could have been the veteran coach’s best performance yet. I guess some times a coach does indeed gets better with age, just like a fine wine.

What a gutsy performance from Steelmen seniors such as Ryan Saunders, who scored a game-high 33 points, as well as classmates Don Joachim, who added 26 points. The team’s three-year veteran, Cameron Blackmon, added 13, while Dakoda Joachim impressed off the bench with 10 points.

But there’s a reason why The Brook is who we thought they were. During recent years, they’ve had a knack for finding ways to win the close games and did that once again.

Brost’s squad possesses one of the deepest group of guards that you’ll see, and not surprisingly, the cream rose to the top in the late going. Thornton exploded for 31 points, with almost all of those coming in the final half. Joseph Yesufu added 20 points, while Marquise Ratcliff came off the bench to provide a big boost with 10 points.

While I expect that we’ll see a few more nailbiters over the next few nights, I can’t imaging how it can be more suspenseful than what we saw on Tuesday.

And for us skeptics who fondly recall how much better things were back in the “glory days,” games like this give all basketball fans plenty of optimism that the future indeed continues to look very bright for boys basketball teams from the Joliet area.

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