JOLIET – Considering that Joliet Central and Minooka entered Friday night’s Southwest Prairie matchup with basically opposite records, it would have been realistic to expect a somewhat lopsided result based only on that data.
That wasn’t what happened. The host Steelmen had to scratch out a 58-55 victory over a Minooka team that made Joliet Central work hard every step of the way.
And Joliet Central coach Larry Thompson said it wasn’t necessarily the things that the Steelmen did wrong that allowed the game to stay close throughout. It was a more a nod to what Minooka was doing right.
“They are a good basketball team. Just because they are 5-10, they have competitive scores in their losses and were in competitive tournaments like we were. They are organized, and they make it tough to guard,” Thompson said. “We’re no big secret: We like to get after people, and if they are prepared for it, which they were, it puts our kids back on their heels. Some kids had some doubt in their eyes, but we kept sticking with it, and were able to pull it out.”
That looked like a doubtful proposition at times.
Joliet Central jumped out quick behind eight first quarter points from Keaton Gregory (12 points), but it wasn’t a sustainable surge.
Minooka held a first half lead of 24-23 when Trent Hudak dropped in a 3-pointer just before the halftime horn. That managed to erase Joliet Central’s small lead and defined a half where neither team could get much separation. Joliet Central twice held leads as large as five points only to watch Minooka erase it each time.
The two teams managed to pass the lead back and forth through most of the third quarter before Joliet Central surged ahead at the end of the third quarter on back-to-back 3-pointers from Jared King and Dakoda Joachim that allowed the Steelmen to hold a 40-36 lead.
“That was big for us,” Thompson said. “We kept the game close and didn’t let them extend on a halftime lead.”
Those 3-pointers seemed to give Joliet Central a burst of adrenalin as they ripped off a 6-2 run that allowed them to build its largest lead of the game, and when Keaton Gregory responded to a 3-pointer from Minooka’s Jaedon Johnson, it appeared that the Steelmen finally had the game in hand.
But as they had all game long, Minooka continued to swing for the fences. A three-point play from Alginon Lewis-Fregeau followed by a basket from Hudak all of the sudden whittled the lead down to 49-47.
King then found his way to the foul line on two consecutive possessions, knocked down all four free throws and put Joliet Central in control once again. King scored all seven of his points in the second half at critical junctures, and while Thompson isn’t counting on the senior lighting up the scoreboard, he is fully expects King to provide all of the intangibles that don’t always jump out, and he’s rarely disappointed.
“He’s the one that is always is the right spot. He’s not afraid to fail and he’s always ready to help, and he kind of knows the moment,” Thompson said. “He doesn’t shoot just to be shooting, he knows the situation. He is the glue.”
After King’s free throws, DeeJay Holmes (18 points) cashed in a score after a steal and once again stretched Joliet Central’s lead back out to eight points. Minooka pushed back with a 6-2 run but ran out of time and was able to account for the final margin by scoring as the final horn sounded.
Minooka dropped to 5-11 with the loss as Carlos Hernandez led the effort with 15 points. Hudak added 11 and Lewis-Fregeau finished with 10 off the bench. The record doesn’t seem befitting the effort of the Indians at this point.
“I’d agree with that, we’re 5-11, but at the end of the day, it’s still 5-11. We’re a group that is learning how to win, and to do that, sometimes, you have to take some losses in games like this one,” Minooka coach Kevin Cain said. “From this, you understand how one play could be, one close out could be, one rebound could be. Once you start to see that and feel that, and you see it on tape, you start to learn from it. But I like where we are at as a group.”