TAYLORVILLE — This was no easy out for Springfield. No chance to rest starters and conserve energy and strength for the next game.
Before the state's top-ranked Class 3A girls' basketball team could advance to the sectional finals, it had to contend with a team Tuesday at Taylorville High School that played like a quality, Top 10 opponent.
Centennial's Chargers are, in fact, rated 10th. Centennial carried an 11-4 lead into the final minute of the first quarter and was still within 12 points in the game's final 1:40.
Thanks to a career-high 37-point performance from News-Gazette All-Stater Zahna Medley — 14 of 14 on free throws — Springfield prevailed in what was a rematch of last year's sectional finals, 72-53.
Though the final margin was closer in 2011, observers rated Centennial's performance Tuesday as the superior of the two games.
"We played a better overall game," Centennial coach Susan Thomas said. "The result was the same, so it doesn't make you feel any better."
Springfield coach Brad Scheffler didn't feel comfortable enough to remove his starters until the lead reached the final score with 50.7 seconds remaining following a game-ending 7-0 run.
"Obviously, Centennial is a very good team," Scheffler said. "They came out aggressive, and we had to match it. It took us about a quarter."
While TCU recruit Medley was the game's star, Centennial had three juniors who helped keep the Chargers (27-6) in contention. Katelynn Martinez scored 19 points, Chelsea Cross had 18 and Chantal Meacham totaled 12 on 4-of-8 accuracy from three-point range.
Those three accounted for all but four of the Chargers' points. Most of Meacham's scoring came after halftime. With Medley drawing the defensive assignment on the sharpshooter, Meacham didn't attempt a shot until the final minute of the half, when she swished a three-pointer.
Thomas believes her team justified its state rank.
"I believe we are close to that," she said, "but we've got to make that leap and take the next step. We thought tonight might be our turn."
Nicole Schweighart is the lone Chargers senior. Four years ago, she was one of nine freshmen in the program. The loss hit her the hardest. Every other squad member can look forward to another season.
"We played our hardest, but it wasn't enough," Schweighart said. "I've definitely enjoyed being their teammate. There were never any issues."
She was proud of the way the team played out Tuesday's game.
"The score was closer last year, but we were a lot more defeated last year," she said. "This year, we played all the way through and made some runs."
Those runs didn't cut into the margin much, Thomas said, because, "after our offensive runs we made some critical defensive mistakes. We'd take one step forward and two backward."
Centennial attempted two free throws, which Cross converted with 4:44 remaining. Springfield (27-4) was 18 of 19 from the line.
Fifteen first-half turnovers — most before the ball reached half court — helped the Senators take command during a 28-4 run during a 7:13 stretch that ended on a breakaway by Cross 1:22 before halftime.
"They're solid, but the injury (to guard Stacia Simmons) hurt them," Scheffler said.
"What we were missing," Thomas added, "was the quick ball handler that Stacia is. We needed just one more ball handler in there."
Simmons will have surgery on her torn anterior cruciate ligament and hopes to resume full activity by November.
Schweighart predicts a bright future for the junior-laden class that has been the catalysts to a 78-20 varsity record during high school.
"This is a good (returning) group, and I hope they make a run," Schweighart said. "I know they can. K-Mart (Martinez) has great instincts and is a great leader. She is so intense and gets everyone going. She is the hardest-working girl."
Springfield faces Chatham Glenwood in Thursday's sectional finals.