OSWEGO – Jamere Hill isn't concerned with how he starts games.
Not with the way he's finishing at Joliet West.
Hill, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, has been on the Tigers' varsity since he was a sophomore. He's endured two losing seasons, just five wins last year. But it's a new day. Hill has emerged as a breakout star for a Joliet West team in the middle of a special season under first-year head coach Jeremy Kreiger.
"He's our senior leader, he's easily our best player, he does everything right and that's outside of basketball," Kreiger said. "We've told him you're going to be a Division I basketball player next year for a reason. It's not how you start games. It's how you finish them."
Hill finished with a flourish Friday.
He scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half. Hill and freshman guard Jeremy Fears, Jr., who scored 15, led the Tigers from seven points down at halftime for a 62-57 win at Oswego East in a matchup of teams leading their respective divisions of the Southwest Prairie Conference.
Hill missed his first five 3-point shot attempts, but didn't hesitate to keep shooting. He knocked down two 3-pointers in the first two minutes of the second half, and assisted a Fears' deep 3-pointer that pushed Joliet West (15-2) ahead 35-33.
Then Hill scored seven straight Joliet West points bridging the third and fourth quarters, his driving layup giving the Tigers the lead for good at 42-40 with 6:50 left.
Joliet West swept Oswego and Oswego East (12-5) this week in two games that mirrored each other.
"We were a way different team in the second half," Hill said. "Against Oswego it was the same thing. We came out real slow, they were missing no shots and we came out and we locked them up. This game, same thing. We couldn't make a shot. We had to get them with defense."
Jalen Tucker scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half for Oswego East, which led 29-22 at halftime and held Joliet West to 8-for-24 shooting during that stretch.
But the Tigers hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter to turn the tide. It didn't help the Wolves when Tucker went to the bench with a bloody nose; he didn't score in the second half until the game's last minute. Similarly, Oswego East's Will Wolfe had to check out with a bloody nose in the latter stages of the fourth quarter.
"Jalen's been playing really well for us," Oswego East coach Ryan Velasquez said. "Not the greatest third quarter and we knew they could shoot the ball. We needed a little stronger hand on those close outs."
Hill and Fears, a baby-faced 14-year-old freshman, are electric with the ball in their hands. Fears on one play in the third quarter stopped on a dime, and drilled a sweet turnaround jumper. In the fourth, Hill broke down a defender, and lifted a spectacular lefty runner high off glass.
But the Tigers' senior, who is drawing interest from Toledo, UIC and Milwaukee, among others, has way more than a driving game.
He showcased it with a nifty step-back three over Wolfe for a 38-34 lead late in the third.
"That's the biggest thing that he worked on in the offseason is the ability to shoot from range," Kreiger said. "He's built for moments like this."
Hill and the Tigers have picked up right where they left off after taking third place at Pontiac over Christmas. They hardly let a boisterous Oswego East home crowd get to them.
"He has been waiting to play in raucous crowds like this since Pontiac; that fuels his fire more," Kreiger said. "With [Fears], you can't teach a 14-year-old to have the composure that he has. He's born with it. It's like a two-headed snake with those guys. If you have the ball in those two guys' hands, they're going to make plays to win."
Sam Schultz scored eight of his 12 points in the fourth quarter and grabbed eight rebounds for Oswego East. Wolfe and Rithik Ganesan each added 11 points, but the Wolves did not help their cause with 17-for-30 free throw shooting. Ganesan's score with 7:03 left tied the game for the last time, at 40-40, but the Wolves missed a number of shots at the rim.
"We got to shoot better," Velasquez said. "Our guys are mad, they understand that we got to play for four quarters and execute better, convert at the free-throw line and be strong putting up shots underneath the basket we need to convert."