WOODSTOCK — For the eight minutes that mattered most, Crystal Lake Central's defense made all the difference.
The Tigers swarmed to the ball, stymied a pair of normally potent shooters, which fueled a decisive fourth-quarter stretch when Central overwhelmed Woodstock in a 54-38 Fox Valley Conference Fox Division victory on Tuesday night.
Central's tenacity sparked a 21-5 scoring surge when the Tigers' defensive pressure produced a plethora of transition baskets following a lethargic third quarter when Central's inability to deal with Woodstock's defensive adjustments set the stage for a dramatic finish.
But that's when the Tigers turned on the heat.
"We started to pick up our defense," said senior guard Corban Murphy, who scored a game-high 18 points. "From there, our offense just picked up from there.
"Lately, we haven't been pulling away from teams like we should, but tonight we did in the fourth quarter."
Central (18-2 overall, 6-1 Fox) led by as many as seven points earlier in the game before Woodstock (14-7, 4-3) went on a 12-0 run to start the third quarter to build a 33-28 lead. The Tigers failed to score for the first 6:08 of the half before Murphy scored five straight points to give Central some momentum heading into the final eight minutes.
That was the window of opportunity the Tigers needed.
"Our defense took over — it was spot in that whole fourth quarter," Central coach Rich Czeslawski said. "We made it tough on them and when we do that, it helps our transition game and we get some easy baskets."
Nothing, however, came easy in the end for the Blue Streaks, who couldn't build off its productive third quarter down the stretch.
Woodstock managed only three free throws for the first 6 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter before Damian Stoneking, who scored a team-high 14 points, scored the Blue Streaks' first basket, trimming the lead back to 10.
By then, though, it was much too late.
"We made a lot of mistakes and we played a little out of control," Stoneking said. "We just didn't bring it at the level (Central) brought it at in the fourth quarter."
While Central got plenty of scoring from Murphy and Brad Knoeppel, who scored 13 points, the Tigers made sure Woodstock's tandem of Jordan Turner and Andy Buhrow never got rolling. The two combined for only 10 pointsincluding eight from Buhrow - as the Tigers frustrated the Blue Streaks in the final eight minutes.
That was all part of the plan.
"We got about four turnovers in a row (to start the fourth quarter) and that really got us going," Knoeppel said. "We just had to pull away and that's what we did."
The win started a big week for Central, which moved into a first-place tie with with Hampshire for the Fox Division lead. The Tigers face the Whip-Purs Friday night in a game that could decide the Fox championship. But after dropping a last-second loss to Woodstock earlier this season, Central understood it needed to rebound against the Blue Streaks to make Friday's test meaningful.
Still, Czeslawski won't put too much stock in the win.
"They're all big because there's a lot of good teams in this division," he said. "There's still four or five teams that could still win this thing and so you can't have an off-night. You just can't."