Champaign Central and Centennial square off tonight at Combes Gym (approximately 7:30) in the latest Battle of Champaign. Staff writer Jeff Huth offers three storylines on one of the area's best boys' prep basketball rivalries.
Big night in Big 12
Two games separate the top four teams in the Big 12 Conference. After tonight, the title race could show some separation or could grow even tighter. Normal West (8-1) will try to hold on to sole possession of the lead when it hosts Normal Community, which shares second place with Central at 7-2. Should the Ironmen knock off Normal West — and should Central defeat its city rivals — there would be a three-way tie for the lead with three games remaining in the Big 12 race. Meanwhile, fourth-place Centennial (6-3) will look to stay in the title hunt. Depending on how things unfold in Normal, the Chargers could draw within one game of first place with a win.
This topic will make the Maroons and their fans cringe, but the numbers don't lie. Remarkably, Centennial has won the last 10 meetings with its crosstown rival. We say remarkably because this has remained an intensively competitive series with its share of down-to-the wire nail-biters that could have gone either way. You need only look back to Jan. 13 for a prime example. In the teams' first meeting this season, the Chargers pulled out a 61-60 win when unlikely hero Dustin Walls banked in a running floater from the lane with 2.6 seconds left. Remarkably (there's that word again), it marked the fourth time in the last six games in this series in which the final margin was three or fewer points. One went to overtime. For the record, the Maroons last beat Centennial 81-69 in a Class 3A regional final en route to third place in the 2008 state tournament.
Speaking of close calls, Central and Centennial each has experienced more than its share this season. And each can only wonder how much better its record might be — the Maroons are 13-8 overall; the Chargers are 8-14 — had it risen to the challenge more often in those final seconds when games are won or lost. Centennial and Central each is 3-5 in games decided by five points or fewer. (It should also be pointed out that the Maroons won their lone overtime game this season by 10 points). For each Champaign school, then, more than one-third of its games so far this season have fallen into this category. If nothing else, each would be in highly familiar territory should tonight's meeting follow this series' recent pattern of hold-your-breath finishes.