MATTOON — It happens every year, during the third month.
The malady affects high school and collegiate basketball teams alike.
It’s seen in teams that had higher hopes and great expectations than where they ended.
Champaign Central is the latest team to be hit.
The Maroons lost 47-30 Friday to top-ranked Lincoln in the championship game of Mattoon’s Class 3A sectional tournament in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,200. A team that Central had defeated in the regular season eliminated the Maroons from the postseason.
It was a one-point game at halftime, but Lincoln (32-2) quickly took control en route to its 18th consecutive victory since the home loss to Central. The Railsplitters’ Max Cook converted a steal into points 11 seconds after the third quarter began. Central (18-11) never caught up.
“We came out flat in the second half,” said Central’s Luke Beesley, who tied for the team lead in rebounding with five.
“We had no energy and didn’t play much defense in the second half,” teammate Dominique Brize said.
Central coach Wayne McClain had hoped to keep the postseason run intact but put it in perspective.
“It’s an incremental process,” McClain said. “Five wins last year. Eighteen this year. You don’t change things overnight.
“I just told ’em, we’re not champions of the state, but we’re definitely champions of Champaign, and that’s a start. We’ll build on that.”
For juniors Beesley and Brize, that’s foremost in their thoughts.
“Me, Luke and Noah (Wells) will try to build on this and get further next year,” Brize said. ”We’ve got to improve. We’ll get right back at it.”
The Central players didn’t see an appearance in the sectional finals as a possibility when preseason practice got underway.
“I never thought we’d be this far,” Beesley said. “We’ll be in the gym by the start of summer.”
For a half, the Maroons were in the game.
Lincoln scored the first four points, but it was Central that held a lead, 9-7, after the first period. A three-pointer by Sean Suggs — who scored a team-high 10 points — lifted Central into its first lead in the final minute of the quarter.
The schools traded leads in the second quarter. A basket by Suggs gave the Maroons their last lead, 13-11. Lincoln went on a 7-0 run, but a rebound buzzer-beating basket by Wells cut Central’s deficit to 18-17 at the break.
It didn’t seem that close to Lincoln coach Neil Alexander.
“Our guys had a lot of fire,” Alexander said. “We played a great first half. I felt good at halftime.”
McClain had similar feelings, but for a different reason.
“We didn’t play well and were only down by one point,” he said. “I felt optimistic about our situation.”
Central was unable to rally. Shooting was the main issue. The Maroons shot 27.3 percent from the field (12 of 44) and were only 3 of 24 from three-point range.
“I wanted to attack more and create better situations,” McClain said. ”We were overzealous on threes. Our shot selection was not great (Friday night).”
It wasn’t all what Central didn’t do.
“We got out well on their shooters,” Alexander said.
Lincoln, meanwhile, hit 10 of 17 second-half shots and pulled away.
Alexander said McClain has Central’s program headed up.
“Those kids understood what it took,” Alexander said. “They’ll be a program to deal with in the future. I have all the respect for Coach McClain. He’s a class individual.”
Lincoln was led by 14 points from Cook, whose father Larry is a 1982 Arcola High School graduate. He had 10 of his points in the second half, including the steal and conversion that got the Railsplitters off and running.
“I could coach this group forever,” Alexander said. “They’re outstanding individuals more than basketball players.”
Central managed three points in the third period, Brize’s three-pointer at the 5:38 mark.
Lincoln’s lead was 11 points entering the final quarter.
“They did what they wanted, and it got away from us in the fourth quarter,” Beesley said.
“We missed too many shots,” Brize added.
Friday’s game marked the final one in basketball for five Central seniors, including scoring leader Suggs. Wesley Dee (two points), Kameron Rowan (two points), Isiah Smith (three points) and Davion Watson (two points) also concluded their prep careers. Smith and Suggs each had five rebounds to share the team lead with Beesley.
“I’m proud of our guys,” McClain said. “They’ve accomplished a lot.”
Playing comeback against Lincoln is a tough task. The Railers, who start four seniors, are patient offensively and display a penetrate-and-pass philosophy.
“They are very deliberate and very efficient,” McClain said. ”They make you work every possession.”
Lincoln will play Cahokia (26-9) in Tuesday’s super-sectional game in Springfield. The winner moves on to the state semifinals next Friday.
“This is a team that has reached every goal they’ve set so far,” Alexander said. “They have one goal left.”
The state tournament is one win away. For Central, they’ll remember Friday as one potential win that got away.