RANTOUL — If the reality show “Survivor” ever switches from individual to a team format, Mahomet-Seymour has it made.
There is no greater story of survival this season than the Bulldogs’ girls’ basketball team.
That was true even before M-S stunned Central 47-41 in a Class 3A regional semifinal Tuesday.
Coach Nathan Seal has six of the 12 players who were on his opening roster. The rest weren’t victims of eligibility or discipline issues.
“They’re out for the season with injuries,” Seal said.
Of those six, “five were significant starters,” Seal said.
Among the survivors is Kristen Belyea, who is playing a varsity sport for the 11th consecutive season. Maggie Schmidt and Hannah Charter are others.
Not surprisingly, they were double-figure scorers as M-S avenged a regular season loss to the Maroons.
They had some help.
Seal has had to promote four freshmen to the varsity. One (Isabel Charter) started against Central. The other three saw action.
“All four did well,” Seal said.
To survive against an opponent that brought a 16-11 record into the game, M-S needed more than good play from its squad.
A 7-0 run to start the game provided M-S a lead it never lost until the final 45 seconds of the third quarter when Johynn-A Evans completed a 10-rebound, eight-point quarter with a basket that sent the Maroons ahead 35-34.
By that time, Central was already without the player who scored 14 of the team’s first 23 points and was within one rebound of a double-double in her final prep game when she departed with 10:47 remaining. Laura Litchfield was whistled for a reach-in foul 20 feet from the basket and — when she displayed her outrage — was hit with a technical foul.
The technical was her fifth and ended her prep career.
“I feel bad that she didn’t get to play the end of her senior season,” Seal said, “but it was a big lift for our team.”
Belyea made 3 of 4 technical shots (another Central player was called for slamming the ball to the court) and the Bulldogs took control in the final 3 minutes to pull away.
Belyea and Isabel Charter combined to hit 7-of-8 foul shots in the last 4:01. M-S kept Central from getting free shots. During the final 28:44, the Maroons shot (and missed) two free throws.
“The way the third quarter went down is not the way anyone expected,” Central coach Martin Pazanin said. “Coming out of halftime, we were pretty certain we’d win.”
Rather than focus on Litchfield’s early exit and how costly it was for Central, the first-year head coach reflected on her value.
“Before the season I don’t think anyone knew how good she was,” he said. “She proved to be one of the best in central Illinois. She was the ultimate leader in school, the community and everywhere she goes. That (technical) was just one of those things.”
M-S (14-15) received 14 points from Schmidt, 12 from Hannah Charter and 11 from Belyea. Isabel Charter cleared a team-high 10 rebounds.
Evans led Central with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
M-S’ reward is a Thursday date against the state’s third-ranked team, Centennial, in the championship game.
“We’ll play hard till the end and see what happens,” Seal said.
Centennial dispatched Rantoul 73-34 in Tuesday’s opener, receiving points from 13 squad members.
Seniors Chelsea Cross and Stacia Simmons each scored 12 points for Centennial (28-3), which forced 37 turnovers and held the Eagles to fewer shots in the game (30) than the Chargers attempted in the first half (35).
Centennial’s all-senior starting unit is motivated for a deep playoff run.
“It’s now or nothing,” Cross said. “We have to come out with 100 percent intensity.”
Chantal Meacham hit three of the Chargers’ six three-pointers, and added, “We want to play with no regrets. Being seniors, it gives us a little more desire.”
What coach Susan Thomas likes about her team is that when things break down, their experience carries them through. She called out a play — “USA,” she said — in the first half.
The ball went to Cross and she drove immediately to the basket and scored her third basket in the first three minutes.
“Or that,” Thomas added.
She wasn’t upset.
“They are taught to take what the defense gives,” she said. “Chelsea read it. It doesn’t have to be scripted.”
Senior Lauren Cloyd demonstrated the tenacity that Thomas wanted in the opening two minutes. Within a matter of seconds, she pulled down three offensive rebounds. After the first two, she fired passes out to perimeter players. Following the third board, she turned and scored.
“It helps to have all these seniors,” Thomas said. “Their leadership is key.”
Rantoul’s Hannah Wascher completed her prep career with a double-double. She had game-high totals of 18 points and 12 rebounds.
Centennial took the lead for good, 4-2, on a baseline jumper by senior Katelynn Martinez and led by a double-digit margin the final 26:14.
“The confidence from the first 30 (regular season) games has built, the chemistry has built and that will carry us into the postseason,” said Meacham, who totaled 11 points.
Junior Jasmine Kyler came off the bench to score 10 points for Centennial and share the team lead in rebounding (with Cloyd) with six boards.