MOUNT ZION — One by one, they exited the floor.
A few jogged. A few walked.
By the time the five senior starters on the Centennial girls’ basketball team — Chelsea Cross, Lauren Cloyd, Katelynn Martinez, Chantal Meacham and Stacia Simmons — reached the bench with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining in their prep careers, varying emotions poured out before undefeated Quincy Notre Dame finished off a 62-37 win in the Class 3A Mount Zion Sectional championship game.
Some cried before they reached Centennial coach Susan Thomas.
Some buried their faces in their white jerseys. Others did so in a blue towel picked up near the bench. Some just sat dejectedly, staring blankly at the action on the court while the final seconds wound down.
“We didn’t play our best game today, and it wasn’t the game we intended to play,” Thomas said. “I credit our seniors for restoring Centennial’s basketball program back to something that we can be proud of. I wouldn’t trade them for any team, (and) one game doesn’t define them.”
The Chargers (30-4), who finished the regular season ranked third in state, never led against 3A’s second-ranked squad and a QND program that won the last two 2A state titles. The Raiders (27-0) darted to a 10-0 lead and never looked back.
“It’s definitely harder (losing) like this,” said Thomas, who received a technical foul with 1:04 left in the third quarter when she slammed a clipboard to the floor with the Chargers down 42-24 after she disagreed with an official’s call. “We’re definitely capable of better. It’s frustrating when you’re not playing well, but you also seem to not be getting any breaks at all.”
Cross accounted for nearly half of Centennial’s scoring output. The forward tallied 18 points on an array of post moves and efficient shooting (9 of 12) from the field to go along with four steals and three blocked shots while limiting Missouri signee Jordan Frericks (nine points, six rebounds). But QND had balanced scoring, with Kassidy Gengenbacher leading the way with a game-high 19 points, including eight during a critical 12-0 run toward the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter. The spurt allowed the Raiders to increase their lead to 35-14 with 6:32 left in the third quarter. The Chargers had cut their deficit to 23-14 with 2:34 remaining in the second quarter after a steal by Simmons translated into a fast-break layup for Cross, but that was the closest Centennial would get.
“Centennial is such a great team,” QND coach Eric Orne said, whose squad beat the Chargers 47-43 on Dec. 21 in Champaign. “It’s too bad that both of us had to play right now because they had a tremendous year. We knew they weren’t going to go away. They went with a little smaller lineup, so we adjusted, and then that run we had right before the half was real pivotal.”
Ditto for the accomplishments of the five starters Thomas will have to replace. Centennial won three straight regional titles with the core of this year’s team — which includes fellow senior Corey Bilger — and produced an 81-18 record in that span.
Hardly any Centennial player who exited the locker room had dry eyes 20 minutes after the game. The same held true for Thomas.
“The senior class is probably the most special group I’ve ever had in coaching,” Thomas said. “Every one of them is a high honor roll student. They are the best of our student body in terms of behavior, so over the years it’s been really easy to be excited for them and get really close with them. They’re just scratching the surface for what they’re going to do in life.”
The senior class Centennial coach Susan Thomas had this season enjoyed tremendous success on — and off — the court since the players were sophomores:
Postseason: Lost 62-37 to Quincy Notre Dame in 3A sectional title game
QND’s ending: TBD
Postseason: Lost 72-53 to Springfield in 3A sectional semifinal game
Springfield’s ending: Placed fourth in state
Postseason: Lost 59-39 to Springfield in 3A sectional semifinal game
Springfield’s ending: Lost in super-sectional to eventual state champion Montini