JOLIET – Minooka knew the pressure was coming from Joliet West in Tuesday night’s second semifinal at the Class 4A Joliet West Regional.
With freshman point guard Keegan Graebner doing much of the ballhandling, assisted by sophomore Jon Butler, the Indians handled the heat en route to a 61-45 victory over West.
Minooka’s reward is a date Friday night with Neuqua Valley, the No. 1 seed in the Class 4A Bolingbrook Sectional, in the regional final. Neuqua destroyed Oswego East, 89-43, in the other semifinal.
Junior forward Joe Butler was overpowering for the eighth-seeded Indians (15-15). He hit 11 of 12 shots, including all three 3-pointers, and finished with 32 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Larry Roberts shot Minooka into an early lead and capped a 10-foot runner along the baseline to end the first quarter with Minooka on top, 12-6. Roberts finished with 17 points and hit 3 of 5 from 3-point range. His basket to end the first quarter ignited a 14-0 run as the Indians blew out to a 24-6 lead.
“Larry has done that all year for us,” Minooka coach Scott Tanaka said. “But Keegan Graebner also was huge. For a freshman point guard, he is amazing. And, we have the big man [muscular Blake Parzych] who is going to rebound every 50-50 ball.
“It’s nice when you work on things at the beginning of the year and you hope it comes together by tournament time. It’s nice when kids believe in the system and then they see it work.”
“They came out and knocked us around, and we had no answer,” Joliet West coach Nick DiForti said. “We missed a lot of layups in the first quarter. I guess the positive was we got a lot of layups in the first quarter.
“When you get down like we did, it’s hard to come back against a good team. It would have helped if we had gotten to the line, but I think we shot only four free throws all night.”
DiForti agreed with how important Graebner is to the Indians.
“He [Joe Butler] gets the credit, but No. 1 [Graebner] should get as much or more,” he said. “We kept after him thinking we could wear him down, and he kept getting the ball to the right spots.”
Minooka led, 30-15, at halftime, but No. 9 seed West (11-16) was not about to go away. With noisy student sections for both teams creating excitement, the Tigers pressed their way back within 38-27 with 4:36 left in the third quarter.
However, Joe Butler scored five quick points, and Minooka stretched its lead to 48-30 and then 55-32 early in the fourth quarter to effectively put it away.
“We played well,” Butler said. “It was nice to come out tough and hard and show them we weren’t going to lay down in their house. We played team ball and got good help on defense.
“We got a little timid for a short time in the third quarter, but then we got back to it. We found the open spots.”
Butler scored 16 points each half. He had eight in the 14-0 run as Minooka blew it open by midway through the second quarter. West hit three of its first 21 shots, finished 6 of 27 in the first half and was 18 of 60 overall, 30 percent.
Minooka shot at a .583 clip on 21 of 36, including 6 of 9 from 3-point range, and had control of the boards early on. The Tigers came on strong in the second half and evened the rebounding battle at 30 apiece.
“We’ve been playing young guys all year, but we really have a nice sold group of seniors who were our glue,” DiForti said. “We had a sophomore [Trevian Bell, West’s scoring leader with 14 points] who got most of the headlines, but they never once said anything. That can be a tough thing for a 17-year-old.”