WASHINGTON, ILL-St. Rita junior Morez Johnson, an Illinois recruit, threw down a devastating turnaround dunk midway through the third quarter on Wednesday against Joliet West. It put the Mustangs up by 10 points, crushed the spirits of the Tigers’ student section and seemed to suck the life out of a gym full of neutrals hoping for an exciting, close finish.
The Mustangs led by 14 early in the fourth quarter and seemed to be putting the finishing touches on a victory against a Joliet West team that was just too small to match up with the 6-9 Johnson, 6-10 James Brown and 6-6 Nojus Indrusaitis (the three top juniors in the state). St. Rita pulled down an astonishing 31 rebounds in just the first half.
That would have been the end of it against most teams. But Michigan State recruit Jeremy Fears Jr. transferred home to Joliet this season and everything has changed.
Fears’ confidence, calm and ability spearheaded a Joliet West comeback led by defense and free-throw shooting. The Tigers forced key turnovers and made 19 consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter to beat St. Rita 64-56 at the Kevin Brown Memorial Tournament of Champions.
“[Joliet West coach Jeremy Kreiger] told us if we can get it under ten with five minutes left that we are gonna win the game,” Fears said. “He asked everybody on the bench down the line, ‘Do you believe we can win the game?’
“We looked him in his face and said yes and did what we needed to do one possession at a time to get the win.”
Fears’ experience at La Lumiere the last two seasons and with USA basketball gives him a rare, Jalen Brunson-esque confidence.
“[Fears] moniker is ‘The Floor General,'” Kreiger said. “And that’s his job. He’s an extension of us as a coaching staff. When they see that he believes we all believe. We knew it was going to be a battle because of the inside force that they have but our four guards are going to be the difference in this season.”
Fears finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals. His brother, sophomore Jeremiah Fears, added 17 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Junior Justus McNair contributed 17 points. The Tigers were 25 for 27 from the free-throw line.
“We let them control most of the game and play at their pace,” Fears said. “But then we started to speed them up and we got a few turnovers and few buckets and the momentum was on our side.”
Joliet West (2-0) didn’t allow St. Rita (0-1) to score a bucket for the final 4:13 of the game.
The Tigers were outrebounded 31-14 in the first half but the boards were an even 18-18 in the second half. Joliet West bigs Matthew Moore and Drew King blocked shots and made St. Rita’s talented juniors work for everything and 6-3 Jayden Martin kept a body on Brown whenever possible.
“We knew that everything was on their side and we couldn’t let our heads drop,” Moore said. “We had to keep fighting. After we got it down to nine points I knew we were going to win.”
Johnson led St. Rita with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Brown added 13 points and 13 rebounds and Nojus Indrusaitis finished with 14 points and nine rebounds.
“The first game I’ve seen for every team I’ve watched has been sloppy,” Mustangs coach Roshawn Russell said. “It’s early in the season and we will learn from this.”