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Joliet Central finishes strong in win

OSWEGO – Ashawn Pitchford stole the ball, took in Joliet Central's clinching layup and pounded his hand against the padded wall behind the basket.
His emotion said it all. This was a long time coming.
Pitchford, a senior guard, and the Steelmen have been on the other side of games like this. They had leads that got away against Oswego and Wheaton Warrenville South. Their last game, against Plainfield East, the Steelmen had to win in overtime after losing an 11-point lead.
But the Steelmen reversed the script Friday. Joliet Central held host Oswego East scoreless for a stretch of 4:27 in the fourth quarter, to steal away a 56-50 win in a Southwest Prairie Conference crossover.
Pitchford had two steals that he turned into baskets in the final two minutes, the last for the game's final margin.
"This is a big win," Joliet Central coach Lawrence Thompson said. "The fact that we were behind, able to get a lead and hold on and finish the game. I'm proud of the way they battled."
Pitchford had 15 points and four steals, freshman Troy Cicero 12 points – all in the second half – and hit two of his team's six 3-pointers, and Lavalle Hughes nine points for Joliet Central (11-14, 5-6). Sam Schultz had 10 points and 12 rebounds and Grayson Goetz 12 points for Oswego East (14-7, 8-3).
Both teams were short-handed.
Oswego East's Will Wolfe, who broke his nose two weeks ago against Joliet West, was cleared to play Friday, dressed and wore a mask in warmups – but didn't go after not practicing all week. Another Wolves' starter, Tremont Brewer was out with an eye injury.
Joliet Central was without its best player 6-foot-8 Kee Hargrow. Pitchford, himself wearing an ice pack on his shoulder after tweaking it Friday, said the Steelmen weren't to be denied.
"Man, it's been a crazy season," Pitchford said. "Since the beginning to now, losing some players for half of our season. But we're a different team."
In a game of runs, Joliet Central scored the first seven points of the game, Oswego East the next 11. The Steelmen had a 12-0 run in the second quarter, the Wolves answering with a 9-0 run for a 29-25 halftime lead.
Oswego East led by as many as eight in the third quarter, and 48-43 with 5:25 left after two Goetz free throws.
But Joliet Central scored the next eight. Jacquavious Brandon, on a third attempt, stuck in a basket that gave the Steelmen the lead with 2:12 left, and Pitchford followed with a steal and score.
"I feel like if we kept the pressure on, what we were doing the first two quarters, we were doing really good," Pitchford said. "I couldn't do it without my guys, though. They kept on rotating when I'd miss a steal and I'd try it again."
Pitchford had a steal and basket for the game's first points, foreshadowing what was to come.
"He's great at anticipating the ball when we pressure," Thompson said.
Oswego East, which had a significant height advantage, was affected by Joliet Central pressure, with 18 turnovers. The Wolves' only points over the last 5:25 of the game was Goetz's steal and breakaway layup that closed Joliet Central's lead to 51-50 with 58 seconds left.
"They're a scrappy team, they play hard," Oswego East coach Ryan Velasquez said of Joliet Central. "We needed to value the basketball because we knew they were going to pressure us."
Thompson regretted not pressuring as much in last year's loss to Oswego East, and switched to a 3-2 zone in the game's final minutes Friday.
Schultz got a good look for a tying 3-pointer, but front-rimmed it with 16.8 seconds left.
"My assistant wants to pressure all the time," Thompson said. "You have to find that fine line."
Oswego East is still looking to find the right cohesion. The Wolves, despite their success, have rarely had their full unit this year, between injuries to Schultz early and now Wolfe and Brewer.
Yet they looked in good shape, up 41-33 midway through the third quarter after two Jalen Tucker free throws.
"We didn't get stops when we needed to and I felt like we needed to play more together," Velasquez said. "I felt like we had some good practices this week but it didn't look that way at times.
"We need to get all our guys back together and playing together. Hopefully that's sooner rather than later."

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