Grayslake Central was in danger of seeing Hampshire appear even closer in the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division boys basketball race.
But the Rams turned to defense and driving to put themselves in position to pull away to their third FVC Fox title in four years. They overcame a 5-point deficit in the final 1:39 of regulation and then scored 9 of the last 11 overtime points in a 66-57 victory Saturday night in Grayslake.
"We started driving to the hole and making free throws and we tightened up on defense," said Central senior guard Malcolm Reed, who had 13 points and 6 rebounds. "We stuck together as a team.
"We had to toughen up on defense. Defense wins games and offense helps out."
Junior guard Joey Mudd scored 10 of his 12 points in the final 5:39 as Central (12-7, 8-0) won its seventh straight game and opened up a lead in the FVC Fox of 2 games in the loss column on Woodstock and 3 games on Hampshire (9-12, 5-3).
Charlie Anderson had a team-high 14 points and Sam Ruhlmann added 12 for the Rams, who were missing senior center Alex Lennartz because of a broken nose suffered in Friday's win over Crystal Lake Central.
"We have real good team chemistry this year ... and we rely on other players to do their jobs," Mudd said after combining with Reed to do the bulk of the ball-handling as the Rams didn't commit any of their 13 turnovers in the final 14 1-2 minutes.
"It's a resilient group and just a great group," Grayslake Central coach Brian Moe said. "They love playing with each other and for each other and they're never going to give up in a game." Ryan Cork (23 points on 8-for-18 shooting) and Matthew Bridges (15 points, 15 rebounds) led Hampshire to a 43-37 lead 12 seconds into the fourth quarter. It was 49-44 at 2:12 when Austin Spaeth found Cork on a back-door layup.
But the Whip-Purs couldn't avoid a painfully familiar scenario where they led in the fourth quarter of all of their FVC Fox losses. They also lost 49-47 to the Rams on Jan. 4 on a layup in the final 10 seconds.
"We didn't make plays when we needed to and had shots in the lane that were very well-contested and didn't go in," said Hampshire coach Bob Barnett. "On the other end they shot very well from the free-throw line (20-for-28).
"It would take a lot of luck (to catch Central in the FVC Fox) and we'd have to win out, which is no easy task, either."
Mudd hit 2 free throws at 1:39 and Reed's steal of the inbound led to 2 more free throws. Jacob Vargo rebounded Hampshire's missed drive and fed Reed for a go-ahead layup at 1:10.
Cork's 2 free throws gave Hampshire its last lead at 51-50 with 58 seconds left. Mudd hit the second of 2 free throws to tie it at 0:39 and sandwiched a pair of strong drives through the lane in overtime around Reed and Ruhlmann free throws for a 57-53 lead with 1:40 left.
Hampshire freshman Bennen Woods answered with a drive 13 seconds later. But Ruhlmann found Michael Benko for a layup at 1:15 as the Rams pulled away.
"I don't think surprised is the word, but we're grateful to be in this spot," Mudd said of the Rams' division lead.
"And we want to keep it rolling," Reed said.