Boys basketball: Plainfield South finds a finishing move

Cougars make enough clutch plays for first road win

Plainfield South’s Jay Pena makes a move to the basket against Joliet Catholic on Wednesday, Jan. 17th, 2024 in Joliet.

JOLIET – This was new territory for Dereon Smothers, standing on the free-throw line with the game on the line.

For one thing, he’s a freshman. For another, his Plainfield South Cougars too often have been out of games with 30 seconds left.

But not this time. Smothers had the chance to knock down a pair of free throws twice as time wound down Wednesday night. Each time, he missed the first one and made the second. But those two makes, and a key lay-up with 3:01 to play, were enough to stifle a Joliet Catholic rally and allow the Cougars to escape the JCA gym with a 60-56 victory, their first of the year on the road.

Plainfield South’s Armaan Hilton goes in for the layup against Joliet Catholic on Wednesday, Jan. 17th, 2024 in Joliet.

“It was really locking in on defense,” Smothers said. “As we locked in, we transitioned to the offensive end and got our motion going.

“You can’t stop the runs. But we can’t let our foot off the pedal.”

Plainfield South improved to 6-12, while JCA fell to 7-9. Each team has a tough opponent Friday, with the Cougars at Minooka and JCA at St. Patrick – and powerhouse Benet Academy after that.

“Mental toughness,” Plainfield South coach Jeff Howard considered the key. “Yeah, you’re tired. Yeah, you missed some shots. Yeah, you let them come back in the game. Yeah, they’re on a run, but you’ve got to be mentally tough.”

The Hilltoppers trailed 51-37 after the first Cougars basket of the fourth quarter, then went on a 19-5 run to tie the game on James Pilapil’s 3-pointer from the left corner with 36 seconds left.

Joliet Catholic’s Jake Troyner lays in a shot against Plainfield South on Wednesday, Jan. 17th, 2024 in Joliet.

Then Smothers stepped up, hitting the second of his two free-throw attempts with 30.7 seconds to play, and again with 14.2 to go, the latter making to 58-56. His 15 points led the Cougars with Kareem Parker scoring 11 points and Devin Tyda 10. JCA was led by Drew Wills’ 22-point showing. Pilapil added 11.

“I was disappointed in our ability to run a quality offense,” Joliet Catholic coach Adam DeGroot said. “We just haven’t been able to put a full game together. The kids battled, but hats off to Plainfield South. As a coach, you hope to see that sense of urgency a little earlier.”

Joliet Catholic’s last chance came when Connor Louthian was fouled with 2.2 seconds left. He missed the first free throw, then deliberately missed the second hoping for a rebound basket, but it was not to be.