JOLIET – As a senior, Joliet Catholic guard Keith Craig has come to grips with his role. He looks at a Hilltopper starting lineup that has featured two freshmen and a sophomore and the message is clear.
In the third round of the WJOL Thanksgiving Tournament, crystal clear was Craig’s resolve during the third quarter of a 61-40 loss Saturday to Joliet Central at the University of St. Francis’ Pat Sullivan Center.
What began as simple as a snowball with a 3-pointer by Craig continued as he converted a gritty putback for a conventional 3-point play. Suddenly, what seemed like a blowout became a ballgame with a surge.
A senior surge.
“We have to lead by example,” Craig said. “That’s the most important thing. The coaches have been preaching it from Day 1. Basically, the seniors have to put our best foot forward and they will follow us.”
If Joliet Catholic (0-3) can copycat the third quarter, a flurry of wins will follow. Joliet Central (2-1) had its 42-22 lead sliced to 42-27 on Craig’s combo. Senior guard Shakar Washington sank a free throw and fed junior forward Jimmy Elias underneath for a 44-30 deficit. Washington then stole the inbounds pass.
After freshman guard Jalen Jackson (6 points) was fouled on the subsequent layup – set up by a beautiful behind-the-back bounce pass by Washington – his free throw meant the Hilltoppers faced only a 45-31 deficit heading into the fourth. Whether it was Craig or Washington, the effort was contagious.
“What encouraged me the most was how hard we played,” Joliet Catholic coach Joe Gura said. “We played hard and we played together in the second half when it easily could have been, ‘Oh we’re beaten.’ It’s a character trait. If we’re going to get better and develop, you have to see that, and I saw it.
“I saw it with Keith, with just 2-3 practices in him, showing he wants his senior year of basketball to be a good one. He’s willing to do whatever it takes. And another guy who finally played well was Shakar. He had his best game. I need that out of the seniors. When they do that, I think we have a good chance.”
The last chance for the Hillmen occurred with 3:49 left in the fourth on back-to-back baskets by senior forward /center Ryan Peter, making it 50-35. It was 59-35 with 2:05 left when Gura emptied his bench.
Playing a game-high 31 minutes, Peter paced Joliet Catholic with 11 points and 7 rebounds. Craig added 8 points and 5 rebounds. The Hillmen had 18 turnovers and Joliet Central shot 54.3 percent (25-of-46).
“Clearly, I see our limitations,” Gura said. “I clearly see where we have to grow and I also clearly see the potential. I’m very pleased. There’s nowhere for us to go but up and we’ve shown it already in spurts.”
Perhaps the best burst belonged to Craig, whose 6-point display in the third quarter took away the pain from deficits of 17-7 after one quarter and 36-19 at halftime. The Hillmen would win the third at 12-9.
It has to start somewhere. Starter or not.
“I tried to give us energy off the bench and give my teammates a spark,” Craig said. “Coach told us at halftime the first three minutes of the third quarter were going to be the toughest and we had to win those to get back into the game. We gave ourselves a chance and that’s what we always have to do.”
NOTES: Joliet Catholic was coming off a 52-39 loss to Plainfield Central. That game was 42-37 in the fourth quarter when a 3-pointer by Peter rimmed out. Craig’s free throws were the lone Hillmen points as the Wildcats closed with a 10-2 run. “That shot goes in,” Gura said, “and it’s a whole different ballgame.” … Joliet Central was coming off a 67-50 loss to Crete-Monee, which the Hilltoppers 83-52 in the season and tourney opener. “We knew we had a tough draw,” Gura said. “But it’s going to help us in the long run. We’re not going to be playing Crete-Monee and Joliet Central every night. Those are tough teams to play against.” … Craig confirmed he’s “back in the swing of things” after missing the opener due to
the end of football season. He shot 3-of-5 from the floor and 1-of-1 on both 3-balls and free throws vs. Joliet Central … Sophomore Keegan Tyrell played some point guard and scored 4 points with 2 assists and freshman guard Harold Davis contributed 3 points in 15 minutes … The Hillmen completed the scoring with a layup by senior forward Kyle Phillips and a three by junior guard Freddie Harvey.