The packed gym in Kankakee was brimming with hope at halftime Tuesday. The home team was hanging with No. 5 Thornton, and a memorable victory appeared to be possible.
All hope, however, was lost in the first four minutes of the third quarter. Suddenly, the Wildcats were bigger, stronger and quicker, and Kays coach Chris Pickett said after the game that his guys ‘‘got a little wide-eyed.’’
When the dust settled late in the third, Thornton was on its way to a 67-55 victory against No. 20 Kankakee.
‘‘We just sped them up and honed in on helping on defense,’’ Wildcats senior DJ Williams said. ‘‘That shut them down.’’
It was the first major road victory of the season for Thornton (19-0). That’s huge for the Super 25 rankings, but the Wildcats had mixed opinions about its importance.
‘‘Definitely, it means something,’’ Thornton coach Tai Streets said. ‘‘This was a great environment to play in, and they stepped up to the challenge. This is a great win, a big win for us.’’
‘‘It isn’t that big,’’ said Wildcats senior Demarco Minor, who had 15 points and seven rebounds. ‘‘It’s just another game, and we go out to win every game. This wasn’t anything special.’’
Juniors Brandon Hall and Sean Burress each scored 16 points for Thornton.
‘‘We want this pressure of staying undefeated,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It hypes us up. We know we have a target on our backs, so we try to come out and play to the best of our abilities so we can keep the streak.’’
The Wildcats led by only four points at halftime but opened the third quarter with a 12-0 run, forcing the Kays into eight turnovers in just more than five minutes.
‘‘The intensity picked up,’’ Streets said. ‘‘[Kankakee] did a good job against our pressure in the first half, but the guys revved it up in the second half. That’s what we do: We play some defense. I’m proud of my guys.’’
Thornton, which was hot from outside in a big victory last week against Homewood-Flossmoor, shot only 2-for-17 from three-point range.
‘‘We can always count on defense,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It would be good to hit some shots, but we always want to focus on defense. That is the best part of this team.’’
The Wildcats host Crete-Monee on Friday, then travel to Bloom on Tuesday for one of the biggest games of the season. Thornton beat the Blazing Trojans in December. in Harvey.
Senior Deylon Johnson led the Kays (14-2) with 15 points, and senior Lavell McIntosh added 13 points and five rebounds.
‘‘That four- or five-minute spurt where we did not take care of the basketball killed us,’’ Pickett said. ‘‘We talked about 32 minutes of focus, and we just didn’t have it.’’
Kankakee’s only other loss this season came on the road Dec. 3 at Bloom. Thornton and Bloom are Class 4A teams. The Kays have become a regular playoff threat in Class 3A under Pickett, who previously coached at Vocational.
‘‘We are a good team,’’ Pickett said. ‘‘We have the talent. We were on a 12-game win streak, and a couple of guys started feeling themselves a little bit. So this is a little piece of humble pie for us.’’