A pair of games into 2018 for Grayslake Central, and it's clear this isn't the same boys basketball team that lost to Libertyville by 28 points in its opening game of the Hardwood Classic.
This also isn't the same Jack Spalding who just recently struggled to make free throws.
Both were made clear during Rams' 75-45 win over visiting Lakes on Thursday night. Rams coach Kosta Kougias showed complete confidence in Spaulding's free-throw shooting when he told the senior forward to take a couple of technical foul shots late in the first half. Spalding was fouled while shooting, and the Eagles picked up a technical on the play.
"Coach (Rico) Ellis said, 'Who do you want shooting the technicals?' Kougias said. "I go, 'Jack's going to stay and shoot them.' I think even Jack was surprised."
"Yeah, a little bit," a smiling Spalding said.
Spalding made all 4 of his free throws, Grayslake Central finished the half strong (up 36-24) and finished the game strong, pulling away in another impressive offensive performance. Spalding tied his season high of 20 points and grabbed 7 rebounds, as the Rams remained undefeated in the Northern Lake County Conference.
Coby Moe added 14 points and 7 rebounds coming off the bench for Grayslake Central (8-7, 5-0). Antonio Crews scored 12 points, and Alec Novak had 9 points and 3 steals. Moe sank three of the Rams' nine 3-pointers. Christopher Thomas had 7 points and took a pair of charges.
Leighsean Triplett scored a team-high 11 points for Lakes (5-11, 1-3), which was coming off an 88-point performance against Mather. The Eagles turned the ball over 17 times.
Grayslake Central went 1-3 at Wheeling, closing the tournament with a win over Dundee-Crown, then opened the new year by dropping a season-high 85 points on Round Lake. The Rams have scored 223 points in their last three games, all wins.
"I think last year we didn't have as many scorers as we do this year," Spalding said. "This year we have me, Tony (Crews) and Alec (Novak), and we're all good threats to score. If one of us has an 'off' day, we can make up for that."
Despite the Rams losing 3 of 4 games at Wheeling, Kougias thought his team benefitted from the experience. It's showed. The Rams never trailed against Lakes. Moe's left-corner 3-pointer in the final minute of the opening quarter snapped a 9-9 tie, and the hosts continued to execute on the offensive end the rest of the night.
"We put (the Libertyville game) behind us," Kougias said. "We learned from it, though. If teams want to switch screens on us, we'll learn from it."
The 6-foot-4 Spalding shot 5 of 9 from the floor, making his only 3-point attempt, and sank 9 of 10 free throws. He also had a 20-point game against the host school in the Wheeling tourney.
"He's a matchup nightmare," Kougias said. "Like I tell him all the time (laughing): 'You can't jump over a phone book.' But, boy, he makes things happen down there. He's fun to have. There are not too many post players like that."
Since Spalding tweaked his technique on his free throws, he's been much improved.
"At the beginning of the season, I wasn't hitting any of them," Spalding said. "I think right before the (Wheeling) tournament I made a change. I moved my hand down on the ball a little bit, and ever since then it's been better."
Grayslake Central hosts North Chicago on Tuesday night in an NLCC showdown. North Chicago takes a 3-0 conference record into Saturday night's game at Grant.
"This is where we want to be," Kougias said. "Now we get three days to prepare for (North Chicago). Coming out from Wheeling 1-3, we really wanted to build some momentum. These last two games -- in conference, at home -- we wanted to impose our will and do what we do best. I think we rebound really well, and I think we share the ball."