CRYSTAL LAKE – D.J. Thomas initially thought his shot was drifting right and a scolding from the bench could be forthcoming.
Instead, the Crystal Lake Central senior forward’s 3-pointer swished through for perhaps the biggest shot of the game and definitely the most important basket of his career.
Thomas’ shot from the right corner gave Central a five-point lead with 2:14 remaining and gave the Tigers a little room to breathe against Huntley, which would just not go away.
Central then sealed the outcome with eight free throws in the final 1:26 for a 54-46 victory in a Fox Valley Conference crossover boys basketball game Friday at the Central Fieldhouse.
Thomas was rewarded on the crucial play for grabbing an offensive rebound. He passed to guard Jake Vanscoyoc, who flipped it back to Thomas in the right corner.
“I came down and their guy took Brad [Knoeppel] instead of me,” Thomas said. “I saw Jake on the wing and then I filled the next slot [in the corner]. I was wide open so I shot, It was a fun one. We felt more comfortable playing after that.”
Central (7-1) led the entire way, but Huntley (4-3) kept the score close with tough defense and hitting some key 3-pointers. Each one of the Red Raiders’ starters nailed a 3.
“You’re never going to put that team away,” Tigers coach Rich Czeslawski said. “With or without Amanze [Egekeze], they still have gamers like [Jake] Wagner and [Bryce] Only hitting big shots. We talked at halftime about an offensive rebound making a difference and I give our kids credit for listening.”
Egekeze, a 6-foot-7 junior and the area’s highest-recruited player who has an offer from DePaul and interest from Illinois and Northwestern, will miss a few more weeks coming back from surgery to alleviate the patellar tendinitis in his right knee.
Huntley had cut the lead to 42-41 with 3:10 remaining on Wagner’s 3 before Knoeppel hit a free throw. On the next possession, Thomas came up with the offensive rebound and his second 3 of the game.
“[Huntley] is a really good defensive team and they don’t force up any stupid shots,” Knoeppel said. “Free throws really helped us out a lot and we played good defense.”
Guard Corban Murphy led Central with 15 points, Knoeppel scored six of his 14 in the fourth quarter and David Panicko added 13.
Wagner and Only each scored 13 points to lead the Raiders, and Only grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. Huntley’s 20 turnovers was a sore spot for coach Marty Manning.
“We played hard, but we didn’t play tough,” Manning said. “We weren’t strong with the basketball. We held them to the mid-40s before they shot all the free throws at the end. We just had some mental breakdowns and that comes to physical toughness and being strong with the ball.”