MOUNT ZION — Phillip Wright didn’t start off as a Player of the Game candidate, but the Centennial senior finished in that manner.
The 6-foot-3 Wright led all players with 21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks on Wednesday as the Chargers secured a berth in the Class 3A Sweet 16 with a 57-51 triumph in the Mount Zion Sectional opener against Taylorville.
“Sometimes,” Taylorville coach Carey McVickers said, “in big games like this, it’s the unsung heroes who make the difference.”
Wright wasn’t a prominent part of the Tornadoes’ scouting report.
“We had to do the best we could against the 6-9 (Michael) Finke,” said McVickers, “with nobody over 6-2. We had to stop (Dedric) Byrd from penetrating, and we had to be aware of (Jeffrey) Lavin and those threes. Those were are three keys.”
After a quarter, there was no reason to deviate.
A Taylorville program that was 2-87 the previous three seasons led the Chargers 11-9. Wright was 0 for 3 and had no points, but he wasn’t discouraged.
“Coach (Tim Lavin) says to play your hardest,” Wright said. “I wanted to play more aggressively. I didn’t expect to end with the most points.”
Wright scored seven second-quarter points, including back-to-back layups to give Centennial (22-8) its third lead, 23-22, less than 40 seconds before intermission. A buzzer-beating breakaway by Dustin Walls lifted Centennial into a 25-22 lead at the break.
“It’s nice to see Phillip play like that,” Tim Lavin said. “We’re getting what we thought we would from him. I’m glad he’s doing it now.”
The key second-half factor wasn’t the 12 points Wright scored during the final 7:28. It was the points the Tornadoes (18-16) didn’t score immediately after halftime.
“Our defense, the second half, was outstanding,” Tim Lavin said.
Taylorville managed just one basket during the first 11 minutes, 20 seconds of the second half.
“I think we were looking over our shoulders for the big guys to come over and swat it,” McVickers said, “but that didn’t keep us from roaring back in the fourth quarter.”
An 18-point Charger lead (46-28) was trimmed to five twice in the final half-minute by a Taylorville team that nailed 5 of 8 fourth-quarter three-pointers.
“Fortunately, we had a big enough lead,” Tim Lavin said. “It was hard to get out on their shooters.”
Six Taylorville athletes played in the game. All attempted three-pointers, and five made at least one.
“To win against good teams like this, we have to knock down 12 or 14,” said McVickers, whose squad hit nine three-pointers.
Byrd and Finke each added 16 points for the Chargers, who face the winner of tonight’s Lincoln/Chatham Glenwood semifinal game at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Walls had the team’s other four points.
Centennial is seeking its fourth sectional crown in boys’ basketball in school history.
“It feels good to help the team and get the win,” Wright said. “We’re ready. We don’t care who we get next.”
If the survivor turns out to be Lincoln, it will be a chance for Centennial to avenge an early-season loss to the Railsplitters (now 28-4). Glenwood is 21-10.
“I thought we’d be at this spot,” Tim Lavin said. “I don’t like to talk about it way back when, but I thought if we played as well as we were capable, we could be at least at this spot.”
The extra day’s rest is nice, but the coach added, “Those teams have both had good seasons and they’re well-conditioned.”
McVickers said there was no secret to turning around a program which had 10 straight losing seasons and sub-.500 records 16 of the previous 17 years.
“We did something unique last summer,” he said. “We didn’t play any summer league games. For seven weeks, three nights a week, we had open gym and worked on the fundamentals, dribbling, passing and shooting.
“For us to have just five turnovers tonight against Centennial shows how much the skills have improved.”
A year ago, before McVickers was hired, Taylorville averaged 25 turnovers per game.