Joliet Central reached a point Friday night where it had to grind its way to victory against Plainfield East.
Fortunately for the Steelmen, they had the right man for that job in Khalid Griffin.
Griffin scored all of his game-high 16 points in the second half, carrying Joliet Central to victory with his post-play power game.
“I had to get to the hole,” Griffin said. “I know I’m going to be one of the stronger players on the court, so I just try to get to the hole. They started out real fast, but we kind of wore them out. We had to protect our home court. A lot of people think they are just going to come in here and beat us because our five starters from last year all graduated. We have to make sure everybody understands it is not like that.”
Joliet Central (6-2) repeatedly pounded the ball down low. While Griffin wasn’t getting his early shot to fall, Plainfield East resorted to fouling him to deter him from getting an easy lay-in.
So began Griffin’s seemingly endless procession to the foul line. He’d get five of his six free throws to drop in the third quarter. Then in the fourth, he got a few shots to fall (three in all) and still managed to go 5 of 8 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.
“One of our assistant coaches thought he might be a little better match for us tonight, and it really worked for us,” Joliet Central coach Larry Thompson said. “Besides Griffin doing it for us in the low post, I thought we were able to turn them over a little bit late.”
Plainfield East (5-3) seemed to have ample opportunity to blow the game wide open in the early going. Joliet Central went on a scoreless drought of over six minutes, which allowed the Bengals to erase an early 9-2 Steelmen lead and build a 15-9 lead.
Joliet Central finally ended the scoring drought, but Plainfield East stretched the lead even further to 22-13, but as was the case for the entire game, the Bengals were unable to extend the lead any further. In fact, Joliet Central rattled off the four points of the first half to pull within 22-17 at the break.
“I thought at times we had opportunities to get away from them and we could never seem to do it,” Plainfield East coach Mike Fowler said. “If we could have strung a few shots together, we maybe could have gotten that distance that we needed to get it. I thought our defense was mostly solid. I’m kind of disappointed. I don’t think we really went after the game at the end, and they did. Hopefully, that will be a learning lesson for us.”
In the second half, Joliet Central did a better job of setting the tone, while neither team was having much success converting points. The gritty style required in the game suited the Steelmen much better, and at the three-minute mark of the third quarter, Joliet Central had successfully reclaimed the lead at 29-28.
Plainfield East returned that volley by closing out the third quarter with the last four points and a Christian Shumate (team high 13 points) dunk that started the fourth quarter.
But then, the Steelmen began its lean-on-Griffin mode. He went on a personal eight-point scoring run for Joliet Central that included him making the front end of a pair of free throws and then getting the ball right back after a teammate collected an offensive rebound. He would then score and was fouled again, converting the free throw for a crushing string of events for the Bengals.
That push erased Plainfield East’s lead, and while the Bengals would close within two points on three different occasions in the final three minutes of the game, they would not get any closer than that at any point.
Deejay Holmes added nine points while Kendrick Williams and Dakoda Joachim chipped in eight points each to the cause for the Steelmen and with that balance came a victory that Thompson feels could give his team a boost as they move along.
“There’s no starters back, and a lot of these kids haven’t been in the situation where they are the person that has to make a play. Some things are going to happen sometimes that just boggles the mind,” Thompson said. “A game like this is big for them, a team like this is a little more athletic than a Lemont or a Joliet Catholic, it shows them that they can do it. It’s a big plus.”