JOLIET – Any time a first-place team plays the last-place team, there is always concern.
Joliet Central, which is in a tie for the Southwest Prairie Conference lead with Romeoville, hosted the last-place Panthers from Oswego on Thursday night.
It wasn’t pretty, but Central finally got the job done with a 64-54 victory.
The Panthers (1-15, 0-7) have been in most of their games this season, having lost seven one-possession games. So it wasn’t a team Central coach Lawrence Thompson Jr. took lightly.
“I knew coming into this game it wasn’t going to be easy,” Thompson said. “Oswego is well-coached, well-organized. They have players with experience, and they have been in most of their games this season.”
But on this night, Central (14-2, 7-0) jumped out to a 7-0 lead on baskets by Ryan Saunders, Don Joachim and a 3-pointer from Johnny Fuller, and it looked like an easy Steelmen win.
Central led 14-5 after the first quarter and stretched the lead to 29-15 at the half as they limited Oswego to six first-half baskets. The Steelmen forced the Panthers into nine turnovers in the half and scored on six of those mistakes.
But, you also must play the second half, and Oswego, as in the past, wasn’t finished. It forced Central into six third-quarter turnovers and outscored the Steelmen, 27-13, in the third quarter to tie the game at 42 heading to the final eight minutes.
“We were just happy to trade baskets with them to start that third quarter, and we were more worried about the offensive end than playing team defensive basketball,” Thompson said.
The Steelmen then came to life and got back to their style as they scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter and held the Panthers without a field goal for the first five minutes of the final frame.
Saunders, who made shots from the inside and outside as he usually does and hit two big 3-pointers during the Steelmen’s fourth quarter run, ended the night with 21 points. He had 13 at the half. He also contributed nine rebounds.
“We just got away from playing our game in the third quarter,” Saunders said. “Coach told us at halftime that they are capable of coming back, but we played their game in that quarter, not ours. We just talked and told each other to get back together because we knew we could put them away.”
Joachim added 14 points to go along with six rebounds, Fuller chipped in 12 points with six of those in the fourth quarter and Cameron Carter added 10 points.
“We weren’t trusting each other in that third quarter,” Joachim said. “Coach told us after that third quarter to stay focused, stay calm and get back to our game. I guess we knew what their record was and we sort of relaxed, especially after getting out to the lead we did right away and then leading by 14 at halftime.”
“I’m satisfied to get our of here with the win,” Thompson said. “We have to learn to finish off what we started. We jump out to that 7-0 and 9-3 leads right away, lead big at half, but we didn’t communicate and play like you have to put teams way. Everyone must be on the same page, you have to respect the game because anything can happen when you don’t focus on what you are supposed to do.”