By Brian Nielsen
Clinging to a seven-point lead against pesky Tolono Unity, Mattoon faced more potential trouble when Cam’Ron Thomas was called for his third foul with 1:25 still left in the third quarter.
As a general rule, Mattoon coach Ryan Ghere usually sends a key player with three fouls to the bench at least until the end of the third period.
“All of our other guards had three fouls, too,” Ghere said. “We just told him to be smart.”
In this case, smart included Thomas getting open, catching a pass and firing in a 3-pointer from the left wing.
On the next Green Wave possession, the junior guard drove to the basket, was fouled and converted both free throws.
Those five points in a risky 23-second span when Thomas stayed on the court despite foul trouble raised Mattoon’s lead to 12 going into the fourth quarter, and the Wave continued to pull away end route to Friday night’s 71-53 non-conference boys’ basketball win over Unity.
“I need to be more careful with my fouls,” Thomas said. “When I picked up the third foul, he (Ghere) just told me to be smart with my fouls. I just have to trust myself and trust my teammates to get me the ball.
“By the time Thomas got his fourth foul with six minutes remaining, Mattoon had a 56-44 cushion and Thomas had his game-high 19 points, including another 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter.
“He rewarded us,” Ghere said. “He hit a big 3 and then went to the basket and got fouled after he had three fouls.”
Mason Wright, who hit three 3-pointers in the second quarter in helping the Wave to a 39-29 halftime lead, finished with 16 points. Samuel Bradbury added 15 as Mattoon raised its record to 8-12 with a third straight win.
This win came in what might be considered the classic definition of a trap game. Not only was a rematch against neighboring rival Charleston next on the schedule a week from this night, but Tolono Unity came to Mattoon with just a 4-13 record, including recent losses to Paris and Rantoul teams the Wave had just defeated.
Ghere did not try to hide those dangerous facts from his team.
“We always tell them where we stand,” the Green Wave coach said. “It should give us confidence: We should win this game. You have to give (Unity’s Rockets) credit. They battled. When they switched to a zone, it gave us some trouble.”
Thomas showed no signs of complacency in his comments. “It was still a hard game,” the Mattoon guard said. “You can’t take any game lightly. We play every game like it’s our last.”
The Wave also had a plan. “We wanted to get the ball down low because Sam is the biggest guy on the court,” Thomas said. A 6-foot-9 sophomore, Bradbury took advantage with three baskets in the first quarter that pushed the Wave to a 17-13 lead. He had 10 by halftime.
Still, Unity fought back to move within 43-38 with 4:04 left in the third quarter.
“We switched to a man-to-man and it changed the game a little bit,” Ghere said. “We let them get a little too confident against our zone.”
Mattoon took control when needed to gain momentum going into Friday’s home game against Charleston, which relied on an 11-0 fourth-quarter run to defeat the Wave earlier this month.
“It’s a good feeling,” Thomas said of the win streak. “I’m really hyped for Charleston. We’ll play our hardest.”
MATTOON: Thomas 5 7-8 19, Morton 2 0-0 4, Carter-Smith 2 0-0 5, Middleton 1 1-1 4, Wright 5 3-4 16, Cardwell 1 0-0 2, Farmer 0 0-0 0, Faulkner Elliott 0 0-0 0, Bergstrom 0 0-0 0, Kirts 0 0-0 0, Yardley 3 0-0 6, Bradbury 7 1-3 15. Totals 26 12-17 71. 3-point goals: Thomas 2, Carter Smith 1, Middleton 1, Wright 3.
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