JOLIET – Last season, Justus McNair usually was the third option when Joliet West needed a play.
This year, with Jeremy Fears, Jr. and Jeremiah Fears off playing elsewhere, McNair was the main man down the stretch for the Tigers on Tuesday night in a 64-57 win over Joliet Central in the Southwest Prairie Conference opener for both teams.
McNair finished with a game-high 25 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter when he shot 4 of 4 from the field and 3 of 3 from the free-throw line. That helped erase the 47-44 deficit the Tigers faced at the start of the fourth quarter.
“I love to have the ball in my hands when the game’s on the line,” the Valparaiso-bound McNair said. “In the fourth quarter, it came down to us getting stops on defense. We talked about that at halftime, and the whole second half we did a good job, but we did better in the fourth quarter.
“We are still a pretty young team and are learning each other on the court. It’s fun to play Joliet Central when they have a good team like this year. We knew they had a good team coming in, but we were the better team tonight.”
For much of the game, the teams were pretty even.
Central (4-1, 0-1) entered having won the WJOL Thanksgiving Classic championship, while West (4-1, 1-0) took third place at the Riverside-Brookfield Tournament. And the score reflected how close the teams were matched.
Neither team led by more than nine through the first three quarters. Central’s first lead came with 4:43 remaining in the second on a pair of free throws by Zion Kostyra, who led the Steelmen with 14 points. West rallied to take a 35-32 halftime lead.
West scored the first six points of the third to open a 41-32 lead, but the Central defense clamped down and forced six turnovers in the third, which helped them go on a 9-0 run to tie it at 41. Central then outscored West 6-3 the rest of the quarter to take a 47-44 lead into the fourth.
Sophomore Luke Grevengoed opened the fourth with a 3-pointer to tie it and it was tied again at 49 and 51. Central then went ahead 55-51 on back-to-back baskets by Jaylin Murphy and Isaiah Molette. The teams traded baskets before West got a bucket by Corey Nobles and another by McNair to tie it at 57. NcNair then stole an inbounds pass and went for a layup, was fouled, and made his free throw for a 60-57 lead. Grevengoed then hit a short jumper in the lane and McNair closed it out with a pair of free throws.
“This was fun,” West coach Jeremy Kreiger said. “It’s always fun when both West and Central are good.
“It was nice to have Justus take over there late. You can’t shoot a team out of a zone. You have to take the ball inside, and Justus was willing to do that. And I can’t say enough about Luke Grevengoed. He’s only a sophomore, but he showed a lot of the older players how you can impact the game without the ball in your hands. He played great defense, he rebounded and when he got a chance, he drained a couple big shots for us. We’re still a young team, and we will keep learning.”
Besides Kostyra, Central saw Murphy and Danny Thompson each score 10 points, while Molette and Deven Triplett both scored nine.
“Credit to Joliet West and Coach Kreiger,” Central coach Lawrence Thompson, Jr. said. “They executed way better than we did down the stretch. That’s on me. As a coach, I have to do a better job getting the guys to execute at the end.
“We have to take care of the ball and play better. We did that at the WJOL Tournament, but playing Joliet West is a different animal. We plan on being in the hunt all season”