Central won the third installment in this season's Battle of Champaign in a thriller at Combes Gym.
CHAMPAIGN — “When I say we discussed being champs, that’s a true statement,” Central coach Wayne McClain said.
That discussion became reality Friday night when McClain’s Maroons knocked off crosstown rival Centennial 50-45 at a sold-out Combes Gym to capture the Class 3A regional championship.
“I’m proud for our kids,” McClain said. “They’ve worked so hard. I’m glad they get to reap the benefits.”
The third meeting between these two teams this season was a battle from start to finish.
Central started the game with an 8-2 run and shot 3 for 3 from behind the arc in the opening period. Kameron Rowan scored eight of his nine points in the first quarter, and the Maroons led 17-10 after one.
A Noah Wells three-pointer gave the Maroons a 22-12 advantage with 5:47 left in the first half, their biggest lead of the game.
Then Central went cold, the Maroons going scoreless for the remainder of the half.
Central’s woes were compounded by a foot injury to senior point guard Rowan midway through the second quarter after an attempt to block a layup attempt by the Chargers’ Dedric Byrd.
The Chargers scored 10 unanswered to tie the game 22-22 at the half.
Quin Nottingham’s three-pointer early in the third quarter capped a 13-0 run and gave the Chargers their first lead at 25-22.
Central responded with Wesley Dee.
“Coach came in the locker room (at halftime) and called me out,” Dee said. “I had to perform.”
Dee scored all seven of his points in the third quarter.
“I could see he had a lot of enthusiasm tonight, and that’s how we need him to play,” McClain said. “More importantly, he was active on defense.”
Dee’s effort helped Central go into the fourth quarter up 36-30, but Centennial refused to go away.
With 3:47 left, a Khalil Toombs basket brought Centennial to within two, 40-38.
Central marched to the free throw line for the remainder of the contest, where it scored its final 10 points.
Davion Watson was the last to go to the stripe with 7.6 seconds remaining and his team up 48-45. Watson knocked down both free throws to ice the game.
“Huge, huge free throws,” McClain said.
“We didn’t have a large margin for error. We had to be special, and our team was special tonight.”
For Centennial, it ends a season with high expectations after capturing the Big 12 Conference championship.
“We played hard,” Centennial coach Tim Lavin said. “We turned it over way too much, and we relied too much on the outside jumper.”
The loss also effectively ends the career of Illinois signee Michael Finke, who finished with nine points and 11 rebounds in his final high school contest.
“They did a nice job on him,” Lavin said. “They were physical. They pushed him farther out on the perimeter, made it difficult for him.”
Next up for Central is a sectional semifinal against Springfield Lanphier at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Mattoon.
“We were ready for this one,” Rowan said. “We’re ready for anything.”