JOLIET – Normally Gregg Bayer would have liked to let his Plainfield Central boys basketball team get up and down the floor more often in Saturday’s championship game of the 24th annual WJOL Thanksgiving Classic, but he faced reality after the first half.
With opponent Providence Catholic dictating a methodical pace because of its defensive play, the Wildcats coach had to have his squad perform in a similar fashion.
Despite the best efforts of all-tournament selection Joe Alfirevich, who accounted for 21 of the Celtics’ 34 points, the Wildcats were able to execute well enough in the slower tempo to claim a 41-34 win at the University of St. Francis’ Sullivan Center.
Tournament most valuable player Brandon Shoemaker scored nine points in the title game and was one of four Wildcats who scored seven or more points to help their program capture its third championship in the tournament and the first since 2009.
Mekhi Lunford led the Wildcats (4-0) with 11 points, while Javari Johnson added 10 points and Joseph Edozie added seven points and five rebounds. Central made good on 13 of 18 free-throw tries and only turned the ball over 12 times compared with 17 for the Celtics.
“In the first half, we wanted to pressure some more, but to do that, you have to make some baskets,” Bayer said. “And in transition, they really do a phenomenal job of getting back, so they’re a team that makes you earn everything. There was nothing easy, since they were giving up 30 points in this tournament for a reason. But it’s nice to play different styles since this is a game that you can revert back to when you play a team that has a similar style.”
The Celtics (3-1), who fell for the 15th time in a WJOL title game, had only three players who scored, with Noah Vassal adding eight points. They tied things at 30-30 with 3:17 left on two free throws by Alfirevich, but the Wildcats got a layup and two free throws from Lunford, and two free throws from Johnson to move back in front for good.
“If you had said at the start of the season that we’d play for a championship, I’d have been excited about that,” Celtics coach Kyle Murphy said. “We said to the guys that this is definitely something to build off of. Defense is our backbone and we want to keep scores in the 30s and 40s, and we have nine seniors in this group, so there’s a lot of senior leadership.”
The Wildcats led 6-4 after one quarter and owned a 14-13 halftime lead. They boosted it to 27-22 heading into the final quarter, and pulled away again after seeing the Celtics tie it up.
“We don’t give up at all,” Shoemaker said. “If we turn the ball over in the first half, we talk about it and then we come back out ready to fight and play hard. This is very important because in past seasons we did terrible here, but this is special since we went 4-0 and hadn’t won this for several years. So this is real big and I’m very excited.”
While the Celtics came up short of an elusive title, they weren’t disappointed with their effort.
“We’ve been working hard all offseason and from the start of practice so we knew we were ready for anything,” Alfirevich said. “We have a lot of experience on the team and that helped for sure. We’re looking to build off of this and keep getting better and playing as a team.”