CRYSTAL LAKE – No one will ever need to remind Crystal Lake Central’s boys basketball team about the importance of making free throws again.
In the first half of Central’s matchup against crosstown rival Prairie Ridge on Wednesday, the Tigers might have taken more trips to the line than they had in their previous few games combined. The Tigers scored 16 of their 36 first-half points from the stripe, and the effort gave them enough of an advantage to withstand the Wolves’ 30-point fourth-quarter in a wild 74-67 Fox Valley Conference crossover victory.
“The way [the Wolves] play, forcing possessions, and the way we shoot free throws, we were worried this was going to be a game like that,” said Central coach Rich Czeslawski, whose team converted 28 of 43 free throws. “We made just enough.”
Central (4-1) reached the bonus with 2:37 left in the first quarter. Senior guard Brad Knoeppel scored the first two of his 11 free throws to make it 18-9, and the Tigers led 21-14 at the end of the first with just 10 points coming from field goals.
“I think that got us going a little bit,” said Knoeppel, who finished with 18 points and four assists. “They were running a little press, we kind of got out of control a little bit and they kept fouling us and put us at the line. It kind of settled us down.”
The Wolves’ foul trouble helped Central control the game’s tempo, which had been one of the Tigers’ biggest priorities entering the game.
The Wolves already substitute players liberally but coach Corky Card was forced to blow through an array of lineups just to keep his players out of foul trouble. Unable to establish a rhythm, the Wolves went more than 5 minutes in the first quarter without scoring a field goal.
“We weren’t smart with our fouls,” said Card, “and the kids did not adjust to the way the game was being officiated.”
The Wolves (2-3) played a more controlled second half and hit their offensive stride. Junior guard Steven Ticknor (18 points) nailed back-to-back 3-pointers with just under 3 minutes left in the third to pull Prairie Ridge closer at 44-34. Central came back with 3s from Knoeppel and senior forward Corban Murphy (game-high 22 points) to widen the gap to 50-36 with 1:32 left in the third, but Prairie Ridge wasn’t finished.
Junior guard Michael Bradshaw drained three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and the Wolves pulled within seven, 71-64, with 42 seconds left in the game on a 3 from Matt Perhats. But Knoeppel hit two free throws with 36 seconds remaining to put the Tigers ahead by nine and they held on despite a big back door bucket from Ticknor that drew a foul for a three-point play with 29 seconds left on the clock.
“We knew they’d get hot from the arc at some point and make their run, so we told our kids to keep their poise,” Czeslawski said. “I’m not thrilled with the way we finished the game, but at this point in the season a win’s a win. We’ll take it.”