CHAMPAIGN — Dustin Walls wasn’t Option No. 1. Or No. 2.
In fact, with a 2.0-point scoring average entering Friday night’s latest edition of the Battle of Champaign, the Centennial junior guard might have been the least likely candidate to take the biggest shot of the basketball game.
But when Champaign Central’s defense took away Option No. 1 (17-point scorer Devin Carter) and denied Option No. 2 (11-point producer Taylen Alexander), the ball ended up in the hands of a 5-foot-9 junior in the midst of his first varsity season.
Walls knew exactly what to do with it, coolly banking in a running floater from the lane with 2.6 seconds left to lift the Chargers to a stunning 61-60 victory against their crosstown rivals.
“Not like we drew it up,” Centennial coach Tim Lavin said, “but sometimes guys you least expect make big plays in big moments.”
None bigger for Walls, who’s better known for his sturdy defense and the floor burns that come with his relentless pursuit of loose balls.
“That was my first time shooting a game-winner,” said Walls, who finished with five points. “It feels great.”
Perhaps no Charger was more appreciative of his teammate’s heroics than Austin Judy. Given a rare start, the senior forward piled up 15 points in the first three quarters but couldn’t hit any of five shots in the final period, including the front end of a one-and-bonus free throw opportunity with 21 seconds left and Centennial trailing 60-59.
“I kind of blew it on those free throws,” Judy said. “I should have made them. But Dustin saved the day, thank God.”
The triumph extended the Chargers’ recent iron grip in this series as they defeated Central for the 10th straight time. With Central entering the night in sole possession of the Big 12 Conference lead and Centennial (6-10, 4-2) having lost its previous four games, Lavin noted there were plenty of folks who doubted the Chargers’ chances on this night.
“A lot of people forget we’ve got a lot of pride here,” he said “We’ve had some good years, got a great program, and there’s some pride in that locker room. And I think it showed tonight.”
The loss dropped the Maroons (9-6) out of sole possession of the Big 12 lead into a tie with Normal West at 5-1.
Leading 60-57 entering the final minute, Central went 0 for 3 at the foul line thereafter — each miss on the first shot of a one-and-bonus.
But Maroons coach Scott Davis pointed to his team’s shot selection in the third quarter as its true downfall. Ahead 30-29 at halftime after overcoming a 15-6 deficit, Central was outscored 19-13 in the third period.
“We lost track of what got us the lead, and what got us the lead was taking the ball inside,” Davis said. “In the third quarter we decided we wouldn’t do that. And in the third quarter we decided we would take these running little floaters or running jump shots or whatever it was, and we decided we wouldn’t get the ball inside.
“And we came away empty in the third quarter.”
Besides leading the Chargers in scoring, Carter grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
Senior forward Corvon Butler, facing his former team for the first time, produced a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) for the Maroons.
Sophomore center Jordan Caroline, whose heave from near midcourt just before the final buzzer missed, contributed 15 points for Central.