JOLIET – When you look at the definition of a tiger and a bengal, there is not much difference.
That was the case Tuesday night as Joliet West hosted Plainfield East in a Southwest Prairie Conference game. Neither team has a realistic shot at the conference title, but this game had meaning as the sectional seedings are due Wednesday and every team wants to play well at the end of the season.
The two teams met in early January with East winning, 70-54, but on this night it was a different story. Michael Smith hit a driving layup for the Tigers (9-13, 5-6) with 2.3 seconds left for a 52-50 West victory.
East (15-10, 6-5) tied the game at 50 on a shot by Yamani Shareef (14 points, seven rebounds) with 43 seconds left and West held the ball, calling timeout with :27 remaining. After an inbounds pass that changed possessions a few different times, West got the ball back with :10 to go. The inbounds play went to Smith for the final shot.
“I knew it was either going to be Charles [McKinney] or me for that last shot,” said Smith, who ended with 14 points and four rebounds. “But I got the ball, and I was going to the basket. We have had some good practices since our game got canceled last Friday, and we really played well. If we can continue to practice like we have and play as a team, we can play with anyone.”
West started the third quarter trailing 22-19, but McKinney (12 points) came alive and scored the Tigers’ first eight points of the quarter in a two-minute span for a 27-24 lead. The Tigers never trailed again. However, East finally tied the game at 35 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Things went back and forth in the final quarter, which featured five different ties.
“That was a great game, and it was a game where both teams played to their strengths,” West coach Nick DiForti said. “It seemed we were playing ourselves because we are so much alike. We are mirror images of each other. It was like our practices have been, and I’m sure East felt the same way.
“Charles [McKinney] finally got going to start the third quarter, and that is the Charles we know and love. When Michael [Smith] got the ball in that final few seconds I knew he had the confidence to get to the basket. He has played in enough big games where a situation like that is not going to faze him.”
Also playing a key role for West was sophomore point guard Jamere Hill. He ran the offense, scored four points and led the Tigers with seven rebounds. He played the majority of the season on the sophomore team, only recently getting full-time duty with the varsity.
“It’s fun to be out there on the floor with the varsity,” Hill said. “The game is so different and so fast compared to the sophomore game. But I have learned a lot just practicing every day with the varsity. I really like to control the game, play at the pace that we want to, and I really work hard at getting rebounds. We do enough rebounding drills in practice that coach tells all of us to just go get the ball.”
“We gave the keys to the car to a person who isn’t even old enough to have a license,” Diforti said of Hill. “He has done a great job in such a short period of time and will only continue to get better.”
The Bengals’ Joshua Humphrey (seven points) hit a 3-pointer with :14 remaining in the first half for a 22-19 lead. Neither team could find the bottom of the net in the first two quarters, but it wasn’t because of lack of opportunities. There were only a combined seven turnovers in the first quarter, but misses on the offensive end by both teams limited the score to 11-8 in favor of East.