Playing against teams as physically strong and athletic as Rockford Jefferson will only accelerate Aidan Einloth's maturation as a basketball player.
Not that Grayslake North is rushing the 6-foot-3 freshman forward.
Einloth grabbed a team-high 7 rebounds and scored 6 points in his first varsity start Friday night in third-round action of the Johnsburg/Richmond-Burton tournament at Richmond-Burton. Rockford Jefferson broke open a tight game in the third quarter en route to a 75-62 win over previously undefeated Grayslake North, advancing the J-Hawks to today's 7:30 p.m. championship game against Johnsburg at Johnsburg.
Grayslake North (2-1) will play Grant (2-1) in the third-place game at 6 p.m.
"It's faster. It's quicker thinking," Einloth said of varsity ball. "It's a lot different from sophomores."
The sophomore level is where Einloth figured to play this season. But when 6-3 junior Jesse Davis broke his tibia and fibula during football, the Knights were in need of another big body.
Einloth didn't learn that he made the varsity until tryouts.
"I was kind of surprised because throughout the summer I was playing with the sophomores," Einloth said. "But I guess I was ready. Coach believes in me, which helps a lot."
For Knights coach Todd Grunloh, there's a lot to like about Einloth.
"He doesn't do anything wrong," Grunloh said. "He's not necessarily flashy. We knew he was going to be practicing with us all season. We were like, 'Can we find him minutes?' We weren't exactly sure. We put him in the first quarter against Wauconda (in the season opener), and we haven't taken him out much since."
Einloth's putback with 1:33 left in the third quarter cut Rockford Jefferson's lead to 49-44. The J-Hawks answered, before Einloth fed fellow forward Anthony Winfield for a layup with eight seconds to go. But sophomore Montel Brown scored on an offensive rebound at the buzzer to give Rockford Jefferson a 53-46 advantage. It was the J-Hawks' third basket on a putback in the quarter.
Rockford Jefferson then dominated the fourth. The 6-3 Brown had 10 offensive rebounds in the game and, in total, 13 boards.
The J-Hawks grabbed 17 rebounds on the offensive glass.
"There were two things we talked about -- we got to handle the ball pressure, which I thought we did a really nice job of in the first half, and we got to box out," Grunloh said. "They were pretty much stronger than us, all five starters and the first three guys off the bench. We held our own for the first half, but they killed us on the glass the second half. I don't know if that was fatigue or they just finally realized that they could drive us under the basket and get putbacks."
Danny Mateling and A.J. Fish led Grayslake North in scoring with 17 and 16 points, respectively. The Knights' 18 turnovers were fewer than they committed against both Wauconda and Richmond-Burton.
Rockford Jefferson sophomore guard Antonie Pittman led all scorers with 22 points. The J-Hawks also got double-digit points from 6-4 senior Tyrice Morgan (15), Brown (11) and sophomore ML Moore (10).
"They did a good job of pressuring us," Einloth said. "We lost our composure a little bit, but if we faced them again, I'm sure we'd keep it closer."