DANVILLE — The difference, on the scoreboard, was three points.
The difference, on the basketball court, was Dedric Byrd.
The 5-foot-9 Centennial junior scored six points in the final 64 seconds Friday night as the Chargers rallied from a seven-point deficit to edge Danville 48-45 in a Big 12 Conference contest.
“The system we play allows him to create and use the ability to go by people and make things happen,” Centennial coach Tim Lavin said.
Byrd transferred during the summer from Chicago Foreman and Lavin had no doubts the point guard would make an immediate impact.
“He was that guy we needed to get to the basket,” Lavin said, “and the more comfortable he gets, the better he plays.”
Danville captured the game’s biggest lead, 43-36 on Marcus Merriweather’s third three-pointer with 3:35 remaining. The score remained unchanged until Luke Vaughn scored from the lane with 1:25 left.
“Luke was frustrated he missed some easy shots early and must have said to himself he’d make up for it in the second half,” Lavin said.
The 6-8 Vaughn nearly had a double-double after intermission, grabbing 10 of his game-high 14 rebounds and scoring eight of his nine points after the break.
For all the heroics of Byrd and Vaughn, it’s debatable whether their efforts would have been sufficient to rally the Chargers had Danville made its free throws.
The Vikings, who lost at Centennial by 24 points in the opening game for both schools, didn’t go to the line until the third period and finished 2 for 12 from the stripe, including 2 for 10 in the fateful fourth quarter.
“We did everything we could until the last couple of minutes,” Danville coach Ted Houpt said. “Obviously, they’re trying to make them, but it got away from us when we started missing free throws.
“We shot a lot of free throws this week, but we didn’t shoot them with that kind of pressure. Everyone started feeling the pressure.”
Centennial’s game plan the final 90 seconds was to rely on Byrd, the scorer, instead of Byrd, the distributor, and then, Lavin said, “make them shoot free throws to win. You’ve got to make free throws to finish it out.”
Centennial didn’t play favorites. The Chargers sent four different Vikings to the free throw line in the final minutes.
Meanwhile, in addition to Byrd’s three late field goals on drives to the basket, teammates Khalil Toombs and Dustin Walls were each 2 for 2 on free throws in the last 50.8 seconds. Walls’ two came with 3.9 seconds to go and lifted the Chargers into a three-point lead for the third time in the game.
“Danville is athletic and quick and has all the tools to defend,” Lavin said. “This is a tough place to play.”
Houpt said the team’s defensive effort started with the job junior Trent Sherfield did on Illini commitment Michael Finke. The junior finished with seven points — one fewer than Sherfield scored — and was scoreless the last 91/2 minutes.
“Trent’s defense on Finke was incredible,” Houpt said. “We talk about his intensity, and tonight he took it to another level. We struggled offensively, but our defense kept us in it.
“But, we didn’t play that defense the last two minutes.”
Finke burned the Vikings for 31 points in the first meeting. The rematch was different and the 6-9 Finke didn’t get his first shot until the 3:37 mark of the opening quarter.
“They did a nice job on him and made him work for everything,” Lavin said.
Denzel Smith came off the bench to lead the Vikings with 11 points. He hit his first five shots. Merriweather added 10 points.
Byrd was the Chargers’ lone double-digit point-maker. He collected 16 points even though he attempted just one shot in the middle two quarters.
Down the stretch, however, Houpt said, “he put it in another gear and was getting points pretty quickly. We couldn’t stop him, and we couldn’t knock down free throws.
“That was the 1-2 punch.”
Danville held the lead after each of the first three quarters against the school ranked 11th in the first Class 3A state poll. Houpt is past looking for moral victories.
“We’ll have practice (Saturday),” he said. “There’s no other choice. This was the kind of game that could have been a turning point in the season. We needed that win desperately.
“We can’t let it crush us. We can’t let it defeat us. There are a lot of games left and a lot we can still accomplish. It’s hard to see, but no doubt we’ve made progress.”