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Joliet Central's Jalen Heath (right) drives to the basket in front of Bloom's Lejavius Johnson. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media

Late in the first half of Joliet Central’s 71-58 victory over Leo in last week’s McDipper Tournament, Steelmen senior Jalen Heath had the ball at midcourt.

He hit junior teammate Jonah Coble in stride with a long, accurate bounce pass. The streaking Coble finished the play with a layup.

I watched lots of boys basketball during last week’s holiday tournaments and that play was my favorite —although I wish I had been at Pontiac to see Joliet West’s 6-foot-2 Morris Dunnigan dunk over Curie’s 6-9 Cliff Alexander to climax a coast-to-coast explosion. Heath’s pass and Coble’s finish? You occasionally see plays like that on the late-night college and NBA highlights.

Heath and all-tournament selection Coble, who combined for 165 points in four games at the McDipper, are varsity veterans and have joined senior point guard Eddie McElrath in orchestrating the Steelmen’s rise.

At least it feels as though they’re on the upswing. We should know more after Friday, when No. 4 Central visits No. 3 Joliet West (in the fieldhouse). With school not in session until Monday, the sophomore game will begin at 4:30 p.m. and the varsity at 6 p.m.

The matchup with the Tigers is the first of six for the Steelmen (8-5) against the SouthWest Suburban Blue giants. They are 3-0 in the conference but have two league games remaining against Bolingbrook and Homewood-Flossmoor, in addition to West (8-4).

“We were kind of at this point at this time last year,” said Central coach Jeff Corcoran, who had been a Joliet Township assistant before becoming the Central coach when West and Central returned to separate programs in 2010-11. “With the competition we play, these kids have to take the next step. They have to. It’s time for us to try to get to the top half of the conference.”

The day after beating Leo, Central led Bolingbrook 42-39 at halftime of the consolation title game before the Raiders took over en route to an 80-64 victory.

“This is Central’s best team since the schools split,” Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost said.

The Steelmen can be explosive.

“We’re at our best when we play up-tempo,” McElrath said. “We play hard on defense and try to make the other team play fast.”

McElrath’s job on the offensive end is to run the show, penetrate the opposing defense and kick the ball to Heath and Coble in positions where they can do damage. He also has the ball in his hands at crunch time and is entrusted with the all-important role of knocking down key free throws.

“Jalen and Jonah are the guys we look to for scoring,” McElrath said. “If I can drive, penetrate and kick it out to our three-point shooters, we can let out a deep breath.

“We know we need someone else to contribute offensively. That can be me sometime. We also hope Jarvis [Northington] and Will [Autman] can give us a good post presence.”

Northington and Autman both are 6-4 and have missed a significant amount of the season to date for various reasons. Undersized Central should benefit from having them the rest of the way.

“We’ve been outrebounded almost every game, so we’re looking for Will and Jarvis to get heavy minutes,” McElrath said.

“We have tightened up the rotation a little since the beginning of the season,” Corcoran said. “We’re going with seven or eight guys now, and we’re starting to find a flow.”

McElrath’s presence is vital.

“We sputter when Eddie is not on the floor,” Corcoran said. “He now is the point guard that we’ve wanted him to be. He’s been making his free throws, too. We were 10-for-10 at the line in the fourth quarter [at one of the McDipper games]. If we had that in years past, it might have been a different story.”

West is coming off a 1-2 finish at Pontiac, where the Tigers played in the championship bracket. Dunnigan, though, scored 28 and 25 points, respectively, in the two losses and reminded observers around the state how special he can be.

But what also makes West one of the best in the SouthWest Suburban Blue is defense. As a rule, the Tigers get after it on that end of the floor.

With the way Heath and Coble have been scoring, it will be interesting to see how they fare Friday against a West team that includes, among others, a defensive stalwart in forward Brandon McCullum and a 6-7 post player with the long wing span in Andre Hardy. If the Steelmen get into their offense, it will be game on.

As Corcoran said, “It’s time for us to try to get to the top half of the conference.”

Again, remember the 6 p.m. tip. You won’t want to be late.

More 204 battles

This is the week for the renewal of District 204 rivalries. The girls basketball teams of the two schools square off at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Central (sophomore game at 4 p.m.) and the wrestling teams (all levels) will tangle beginning at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Central.

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