CHANNAHON – Following its game Jan. 10, Minooka seemed destined for much worse than the No. 10 seed in the 23-team Class 4A Thornton Boys Basketball Sectional.
That night, the Indians lost 49-48 to Plainfield South on a last-second 3-pointer and fell to 5-9 overall. Making matters worse, leading scorer Jake Smith went down with an injury.
Starting with a game at Plainfield Central four nights later, the Indians won nine of their next 12 games, getting two games above .500 in the process. It was the first time the team had a winning record since losing four straight in early December. They then dropped two straight, leaving them 14-14 overall heading into their regular-season finale Tuesday at Oswego.
“The last 14 games, we’ve played much tougher competition – I mean much tougher,” Minooka coach Scott Tanaka said. “[Through Feb. 14], we were 9-3 in our last 12 games, so we were playing just phenomenal basketball. Just kids buying in, kids just grinding and continuing to do what we’re asking them to do as a coaching staff and also changing a little bit of the way that we played.”
Beginning with the Indians’ next game after the January loss to South, a 53-40 win Jan. 14 at Plainfield Central, senior Neal Tyrell was moved from point guard to off guard, switching with fellow senior Cody Bresnahan. Tyrell has scored more since the move, getting his average up to 8.5 a game through the team’s 27 games and netting 18 points in a Feb. 18 rematch with South.
“At first, I was unsure about it, but then I saw I didn’t have to work – there was other guys getting my shot for me, and I could still get other people shots. I could get my shot out of the offense better,” Tyrell said. “I’ve been shooting a lot more, and since I’ve been shooting a lot more I’ve been successful at it.”
To another senior, center Mark Geers, the Indians’ turnaround was about them embracing their identity as an defensive-oriented team. Only three times this season have the Indians allowed as many as 50 points in a victory.
“We’ve held a lot of teams – teams that score roughly 70, 80 points – we hold them into the 40s,” Geers said. “When we’re a team that plays defense, that’s something that you have to do if you wanna win games when we aren’t a huge scoring team.”
Low-scoring games, Tyrell feels, will be ideal for the Indians if they hope to win a regional championship for the first time since 1977. They will have to survive a play-in game to the Class 4A Eisenhower Regional against Lincoln-Way North, and if they do, they will run into an Oak Forest team that has scored over 90 points multiple times.
“A game in the 40s and a very slow-paced game, but we’ll push the pressure if we have to,” Tyrell said, of what the perfect formula would be for Minooka.
By Monday’s regional opener, Tanaka is hopeful that Smith, who remains the team’s per-game scoring leader, will be back to being himself on the court.
“He’s kind of working his way to get back in it, but he’s still – you can look out there when he’s played, that he still doesn’t have his ankle underneath him and his feet,” Tanaka said of Smith. “So we’re trying as hard as we can here to get him back up to speed, but it’s taken him a while because he was out over a good month.”
This calendar year, every game Minooka has played has been decided by 13 points or fewer. Though the Indians had gone 9-6 before Tuesday in those games, theirs is a cautious optimism due to the rarity of blowout victories.
“I would say that we’re confident, but we’re not overly confident,” Geers said. “We’re going in knowing that we have to work hard, play like we’re down 10 all the time, and we’re not going in thinking we’re gonna win the whole thing. We’re gonna go in knowing we have to battle but still confident in what we can do on the court.”