Boys basketball: Joliet West hangs on for highly charged win over Romeoville

Tigers almost squander 12-point fourth-quarter lead

Joliet West's Zion Gross goes up for a shot during a conference game against Romeoville on Friday, Feb. 02, 2024, at Joliet. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

JOLIET – It appeared that Joliet West was well on its way to a somewhat comfortable win over longtime rival Romeoville on Friday night.

After all, Joliet West had amassed a 12-point lead with a little more than four minutes to play.

But nothing in this rivalry is easy, and Romeoville roared back into the game. The Spartans had two chances to tie the game in the final minute before finally succumbing in a 60-55 Southwest Prairie Conference East matchup.

“It’s a very, very emotional game,” Joliet West coach Jeremy Kreiger said. “There’s just so many connections with coach [Devin] Thompson and coach [Marc] Howard growing up in Joliet. They are both on the wall here. They used to play here. But it’s just fun. It’s spirited.”

“There’s too much pride in the game [for either team to give in]. There’s too much meaning. These guys know each other. They play AAU together. They’ve grown up together so often. Romeoville coming back is just a credit to EJ Mosley. I know people talk about his stature. He’s maybe 5-9 1/2 or 5-10 1/2 and 160 pounds. But he’s just a big playmaker.”

Romeoville's Mickeis Johnson drives to the basket for a shot during a conference game against Joliet West on Friday, Feb. 02, 2024, at Joliet. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

Mosely almost single-handedly gave Romeoville (17-9, 9-4 SPC East) a chance to claim victory. After Zion Gross stretched Joliet West’s lead to 56-44, Mosely hit three 3-pointers in succession to draw the Spartans to within 56-53.

A spectacular running layup from Justus McNair, who led all scorers with 21 points, gave Joliet West a momentary second of reprieve only to have that basket answered by a pair of free throws from T.J. Lee that once again made it a one-possession game.

Joliet West (17-9, 11-2) gave Romeoville two chances to draw even after a pair of untimely turnovers, but Romeoville couldn’t hit the mark. The second of those attempts led to a fast-break opportunity for the Tigers, who got a thunderous slam from Aamir Shannon to put an exclamation point on the game and close this chapter of fierce contests between the two schools.

The win came with a bit of extra satisfaction for the Tigers, who had to shuffle makeshift lineups for most of the second half because of foul trouble for McNair and the team’s 6-foot-9 center, Drew King (10 points), who had done a nice job of protecting the rim against relentless Romeoville attacks on the paint.

Joliet West's Luke Grevengoed shoots a 3-point shot during a conference game against Romeoville on Friday, Feb. 02, 2024, at Joliet. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

“If you don’t allow your young players to build the callus up to understand adversity, they will never be prepared for this moment,” Kreiger said. “But guys like Aamir Shannon and Tristian Saunders ... just stepped in, and you can trust they want to be here. Despite mistakes, they never stopped guarding and playing defense.”

The game was tight throughout, and the first half saw seven lead changes. Joliet West went into the break with a 29-23 lead and stretched that to nine on a McNair 3-pointer that started the second half, but Romeoville never really let Joliet West get away, pulling out of a potential tailspin to draw back within two points late in the third quarter.

Gross (15 points) tried to assert his will on the game with nine of Joliet West’s 12 points during the Tigers’ 12-4 scoring run in the fourth, but Romeoville finally found its perimeter shooting touch to bridge the gap once more.

The win avenged a 61-54 loss to Romeoville in early December and puts the Tigers firmly in position to win the SPC East title, but while exacting revenge was a slight motivator for the Tigers it wasn’t really the end goal.

“To an extent, maybe that was a motivator,” Kreiger said. “What we try to do is look back on the past and learn from it and then forget about it because you got to have the next play mentality.”