Boys basketball: Joliet West survives late rush from Joliet Central

Justus McNair scores 1,000th career point for Joliet West

Joliet West’s Aamir Shannon finesses a shot against Joliet Central on Saturday, Jan. 27th, 2024 in Joliet.

JOLIET – With Joliet Central trying to rally late in Saturday’s city rival matchup against Joliet West, Tiger guard Zion Gross made what appeared to be a critical mistake.

With the scored tied at 47, Gross was unable to inbound the ball before drawing a five-second call giving possession back to the Steelmen.

In the moment, Gross was despondent. But it took almost no time for him to shake off the miscue and make something happen for Joliet West.

Joliet Central’s Danny Thompson lays in a shot against Joliet West on Saturday, Jan. 27th, 2024 in Joliet.

He forced a turnover and then scored the final six points of the game as Joliet West claimed a 53-47 victory.

“I had to respond to that,” Gross said of the late turnover. “I felt down, but I looked at my coach and he said we were OK. That basically kept me calm.”

Joliet West coach Jeremy Kreiger was satisfied with the response from Gross as it showed the signs of a team and player experiencing growth.

“We spoke to the kids about building like a mental resiliency,” Kreiger said. “Understanding when you win late in the season these games are going to bode well for the playoffs, and just be thinking next-play mentality. Don’t compound your mistake. He was like, ‘my bad coach, my bad coach.’ I said, ‘No, you’re fine, because you’re gonna get it back on defense.’

“So then he goes and causes the turnover, makes the lay-up to take the lead and gets fouled. And then iced it with the free throws. That’s just a beautiful moment for a kid who’s feeling like he let the team down and then comes back and just makes up for it.”

It was a back-and-forth game for much of the night, but an 11-5 Joliet West (15-9, 9-2 SPC East) run midway through the fourth quarter seemed on the verge of cementing a Tiger victory. West led 47-39 after Blowery Moody’s interior putback and with less than four minutes to play things looked fairly comfortable.

But Central (14-9, 4-7) roared back. A basket by Deven Triplett was followed by 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions from Danny Thompson (17 points), and Jaylin Murphy fueled a quick scoring flurry that knotted the score at 47 with two minutes to play in the game.

From there, things tensed up a bit with turnovers on both sides before West seized control largely because of Gross. At the 42-second mark, Gross scored and was fouled. Although he didn’t convert the the free throw, he was in the right place at the right time just seconds later scoring another bucket to put the Tigers up more than one possession. He then iced the outcome with a pair of free throws to finish with a game-high 18 points.

“We understood in watching film, knowing they [Joliet Central] are somewhat undersized this year so they want to pressure you and force you to turn the ball over,” Kreiger said. “And they’re forcing teams into like 18 turnovers a game, so just a credit to them. But then on the flip side of that, credit to us for just being resilient and fighting in a raucous environment after they made huge shots to come back into the game.”

Joliet West’s Justus McNair celebrates his 1,000th high school career point after the game against Joliet Central on Saturday, Jan. 27th, 2024 in Joliet.

Justus McNair, a Valparaiso commit, finished with 13 points, including an early basket that gave him 1,000 points in his high school career.

“Just a beautiful moment for a young man who’s earned it,” Kreiger said of McNair. “He’s good enough to play at a prep school, but he chose to stay, so to watch a kid in three years, despite a COVID year, and essentially being the third option on offense for some of that always find a way to be a double-figure scorer and now he’s averaging a touch over 20, and I’m just excited for him and his family, but then also excited to see how it translates in college.”

The win kept Joliet West in control of the SouthWest Prairie East division race. Joliet West still holds a one game lead in the loss column over Romeoville. Those two teams square off for the second time this season at Joliet West on Friday. Romeoville won the first meeting 61-54 in early December.