JOLIET – As much as Jon Butler has meant to the Minooka boys basketball team this season, he has struggled from the free throw line.
In Friday night's huge 41-39 Southwest Prairie Conference victory at Joliet Central, it was a different story.
The Indians (12-4, 3-2), who played two games Saturday and will play two more Monday in the Galesburg MLK Tournament, gained possession with 1 minute 22 seconds left after Cameron Blackmon's 3-pointer had lifted Central (14-2, 6-1) back into a 39-39 tie. Minooka held the ball for nearly a half-minute before coach Scott Tanaka called a timeout.
The plan from that point was to run down the clock and have the ball in Butler's hands, hopefully to take the ball to the basket for the final shot. After a ball screen from John Carnagio near the top of the key, Butler drove the right side of the lane and drew a two-shot foul. After a Steelmen timeout, he nailed both shots – he was 5 of 6 on the night – for the 41-39 lead.
"I've been in the gym practicing free throws a lot before practice," said Butler, who averages 14 points but was a tick under 50 percent from the line for the season coming in. "I felt like I found a rhythm. I'm glad it finally came through. I felt confident on those last two."
"They ran a ball screen and Jose [Grubbs] and Ryan [King] didn't communicate on whether to switch," Central coach Lawrence Thompson Jr. said. "Jose got a step behind Butler, and Cam [Blackmon] came over to help and fouled him. Butler does a little of everything for them."
At that, Central, which fell behind Joliet West atop the SPC standings and had its 11-game winning streak snapped, still had a chance. The Steelmen got the ball to midcourt and called a timeout with 0:03 left. Don Joachim then passed the ball in to Ryan King on the right side, and he hit Jose Gubbs with a bounce pass. Grubbs had a good look, a turnaround 8-footer, but it bounced off the rim as the horn sounded.
"The guys did a good job executing there," Thompson said. "We got a nice look, Jose just couldn't get it in."
The first of three times the teams met, in the championship game of the WJOL Thanksgiving Classic, Butler tried going to the basket for the win in the closing seconds. His shot was blocked but deflected out to Adrian Paige, who hit a game-winning 3-pointer. Paige missed Friday's game after suffering a concussion in Monday's loss at Maine South.
Then on Dec. 16 at Minooka, Central's defense stifled the Indians as the Steelmen ran away with a 46-21 victory.
"This was a big win," Butler said. "Ever since they embarrassed us on our court, we wanted payback, and we got it."
"This is a tough place to play, and they [Steelmen] have been the hottest team in the state of Illinois," Tanaka said. "To be honest, we shot horribly most of the night, but we did a good job defensively and knocked down some big shots in the fourth quarter."
Butler scored the final six points of the third quarter – on a 3-pointer with 2:24 on the clock and a traditional three-point play at the 0:07 mark. Those were Minooka's only points of the quarter and narrowed the Indians' deficit from 24-16 to 24-22.
Through three quarters, Minooka was 7 of 27 from the floor, 25.9 percent, and 2 of 13 from 3-point range. Central was 8 of 28 (.286) and 2 of 8 from long range.
Then someone flipped the switch. Two different offenses showed up for the fourth quarter, making for a wild finish. There were five lead changes and four ties in the final eight minutes, when Indians hit 8 of 11 shots, including huge threes from Kyle Graebner and Antonio Milazzo, and the Steelmen went 6 of 8, including Blackmon's clutch 3-pointer.
Butler scored seven of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and 13 in the final 10:24. Milazzo chipped in 10 and Graebner nine.
"Jon was really aggressive in the second half," Tanaka said of Butler. "This was a great game to win, a big conference win."
For Central, Grubbs led the way with 11 points, Blackmon had 10 and Marcellus Hornsby added six off the bench. The Steelmen earned a 27-19 rebounding edge as Jason Bingham grabbed seven, but they also turned the ball over 12 times to Minooka's nine, only three in the second half.
"Minooka is a well-coached team with a lot of energy," Thompson said. "They stood up to it when we put a little pressure on them. Give Minooka and their staff credit. They got us playing a little too fast, in my opinion.
"Early in the game, they were missing good shots, then we got open looks and couldn't convert. Add in a turnover here and a missed assignment there, and it all made a difference."