The classic came down to the closing seconds of the second overtime, when Joliet Central had two 3-point shots that could have forced a third extra period.
Neither fell, however, and Bolingbrook, the No. 1 seed in the Class 4A Romeoville Sectional, escaped the No. 4-seeded Steelmen, 94-91, Tuesday night in one of the best high school basketball games any of us longtime observers has seen.
There are so many elements involved in how the game got to that point, how the Raiders and Steelmen alike refused to die. Let’s take a look.
• Bolingbrook trailed, 29-19, at half, then scored 26 points in the third quarter, 23 in the fourth and 26 in the two overtimes combined.
The Steelmen led 10-0 and 14-2 early. The Raiders trailed all the way until Joseph Yesufu hit a 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter for a 48-46 lead. That marked the first of eight lead changes, and there were seven ties that followed.
• When is the last time a kid had a 33-point, 17-rebound night and was not the player of the game? Those were the numbers posted by Central senior forward Ryan Saunders, who hit 13 of 21 shots, including three 3-pointers and numerous breakout layups and tip-ins/putbacks.
“We didn’t do a good job getting back on defense,” Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost said of Saunders, in particular, beating the defense down the floor for quick layups. “We didn’t do a good job with our press at times. Then we got too overzealous with it. It was hard to keep them in front of us. That was frustrating. But it also shows how good their kids are.”
• Despite Saunders’ efforts, the player of the game goes to Bolingbrook senior guard Kaleb Thornton, who scored 29 of his 31 points in the second half and the two overtimes. Equally impressive was his sense of timing.
Thornton made two free throws with 3.8 seconds left in regulation to tie it 68-68 and force overtime. He scored 10 of the Raiders’ 14 points in the first four-minute overtime period, including a step-back 3-pointer with 0:19 left after a Central turnover that tied it 82-82 and forced a second overtime. He also hit a 15-foot jumper and an acrobatic layup early in the second OT to help the Raiders into a lead they would not relinquish.
“Three years ago we were in this same game against Plainfield East and Prentiss Nixon willed us to victory,” Brost said. “That’s what Kaleb did tonight.”
• Other Raiders who made huge contributions included Yesufu, Tyler Cochran and less-heralded teammates Marquise Ratcliff, Demari Grant and Jordan Myrick. Yesufu swished 6 of 9 shots from 3-point range, all in regulation and three in the fourth quarter, to finish with 20 points. The Raiders never get to overtime without his shooting.
Yesufu was playing with a wrapped left thumb. He was wincing in pain as the trainer cut and removed the tape after the game. The injury occurred at practice Monday.
Cochran, Bolingbrook’s scoring and rebounding leader over the course of the season, had a rough night offensively, hitting 3 of 13 shots and 2 of 5 free throws for eight points. But he also grabbed a team-high 15 rebounds and had a few blocks/deflections that prevented potential layup baskets.
“We didn’t finish at the basket as well as we should have at times,” Central coach Lawrence Thompson Jr. said. Cochran played a role in that.
Ratcliff, a junior forward, entered the game in the third quarter and wound up with 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting and three rebounds.
“This was his [Ratcliff’s] best game,” Thornton said, “and he hadn’t even played the last four or five games.”
“This was my best game of the season,” Ratcliff agreed.
“We needed him to do it tonight,” Brost said. “It was like Daniel Burford coming off the bench the other night against Lemont. Tonight it was Marquise.”
Grant and Myrick, meanwhile, combined for eight of their 15 points in the second overtime, six from the free throw line.
• For Central, senior guard Don Joachim was clutch all night. He closed with 26 points and seven rebounds. He made all eight free throw attempts.
With about a minute left in regulation, Joachim hit two free throws when Bolingbrook was called for two technical fouls and the Steelmen for one, the result of a scuffle along the baseline. Then he took the subsequent inbounds pass and drove in for a traditional three-point play. The Steelmen went from trailing 65-60 to being tied at 65-65 in a matter of four seconds thanks to Joachim.
Joachim’s sophomore brother, Dakota Joachim, hit two 3-pointers in three attempts, helped care for the ball in the face of Bolingbrook’s pressure and scored 10 points in a key reserve role.
Central senior guard Cameron Blackmon scored 13 points in an off night offensively as he made 3 of 13 shots and 5 of 10 free throws. Still, his huge 3-pointer with 0:05 left in regulation could have been the heroic game-winner. Instead, Thornton was fouled on the inbounds pass and made two free throws to postpone the Central euphoria.
• Some final stats: Central connected 31 of 75 shots, 41.3 percent, and was 9 of 26, a .346 mark, from 3-point range. Bolingbrook went 34 of 67 (.507) from the floor and 9 of 21 (.429) from 3-point range.
The free throw line made a difference in the end. The Steelmen finished 20 of 28, a .714 mark, to the Raiders’ 17 of 27, a .630 clip. However, Central was 4 of 8 in the second overtime and 9 of 15 in the two overtimes combined. Bolingbrook finished regulation 8 of 16 – only 6 of 14 before Thornton tied the game with his two free throws with 0:03.8 left – then nailed 9 of 11 in the two overtimes, including 6 of 8 in the second extra session.
Rebounds and turnovers were just about even. Bolingbrook grabbed 42 boards and committed 17 turnovers to Central’s 41 rebounds and 16 turnovers.
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.