CHAMPAIGN — The trend started before Illinois coach John Groce and son Conner settled into the wooden bleachers on the second deck at Centennial.
Two of the top seeds in the Class 3A Mount Zion Sectional — Springfield Southeast and Decatur MacArthur — had lost by the time No. 1 Centennial tipped off its regional semifinal game against No. 4 Rantoul.
A nine-point deficit (25-16) late in the second quarter didn’t seem too promising, either.
But Michael Finke — the Class of 2014 Illinois commit and the reason Groce bonded with his son Tuesday night — and the steady play of junior guard Dedric Byrd made sure the Chargers would not become the third top seed in the sectional to lose on the same night.
Finke scored 18 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds to propel the Chargers to a 58-44 win against the upset-minded Eagles.
“We were pretty frustrated at halftime,” Finke said of the Chargers, who went into the locker room down 25-21. “Our shots weren’t falling early, but we knew if we kept shooting they’d find a way in.”
The Chargers only made 9 of 30 from the field in the first half before they corrected themselves in the second half, making 14 of 26 to finish 23 of 56 (41 percent) for the game.
The inconsistent nature Centennial has displayed in the past month — the Chargers (20-8) had lost three of their last four heading into Tuesday night — was on full display against the Eagles (12-17).
“We’ve been up and down a lot,” Finke said. “A lot of times we become selfish and start yelling at teammates, but we’ve got to come away from that and come together as a team.”
Centennial moves on to play either No. 2 Urbana or No. 3 Mahomet-Seymour in Friday night’s regional championship. Centennial coach Tim Lavin would undoubtedly like his squad to put together a full game like the one it played in the second half against Rantoul.
But “survive and advance,” like the words Groce uttered to Lavin after the game, are the mantra this time of year.
“The first half we were all jump shots,” Lavin said. “In the second half it was just totally different. We started getting it down low, and they started collapsing, so we got some kickouts. It just opens things up.”
Byrd contributed 14 points, 12 in the second half, while putting the clamps on Rantoul guard Johnny Jones, whose second three-pointer of the first half gave Rantoul its aforementioned nine-point lead.
“I just did my best to stay with him every possession,” Byrd said. “He was the only one really doing anything. Everything ran through him. He was the main leader, so all we had to do was shut him down, and we’d be all right.”
Jones still ended up with 18 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double, but he made only one field goal in the second half. The Eagles shot 3 of 26 in the second half (13 of 53 for the game).
“Dedric’s that type of defender,” Lavin said. “You put a challenge to him, he takes it. Maybe it’s that toughness from Chicago, I don’t know, but he does a pretty good job defensively, and he sparked us with some moves going to the basket.”
Even with the improved play in the second half, Centennial only led 33-32 with 1:40 left in the third quarter. A three-pointer by senior Jeffrey Lavin and a jumper by Byrd upped Centennial’s lead to 38-32 by the time the fourth quarter arrived.
Senior Phillip Wright (10 points, seven rebounds) scored eight of his points in the fourth quarter as the Chargers built their lead to double digits in the first minute and never let Rantoul back in the game.
The Eagles surged ahead by hitting 5 of 11 from three-point range in the first half, but they only hit 1 of 13 in the second half to wind up at 25 percent (6 of 24) for the game.
“I thought they hit us, and we didn’t really fight back,” Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said. “We went back to our old tendencies of one-on-one basketball and just didn’t play the game we did in the first half. That’s what’s so frustrating to us.”
Centennial will play in its 11th straight regional championship game Friday, and with the way Tuesday’s upsets played out, the Chargers have to figure their role as favorites will increase moving forward. Especially if the Chargers can put a full game together.
“We haven’t put two good halves together in a while,” Tim Lavin said. “Maybe that time will come, and we’re awfully good when we do.”