URBANA – They've been flying under the Big 12 basketball radar since the conference race began in early December.
Never once above .500 – or even break-even – in the league as the halfway point of the Big 12 schedule came and went.
But it might be time to reassess these Urbana Tigers, who made their strongest case yet Friday night that they're turning into a force to contend with in the conference.
Now winners of three of their last four league games, Terrence Gray's guys knocked off Centennial – one of four teams in the 10-school Big 12 to enter the night with a winning conference record – in a 55-53 overtime thriller at a packed Oscar Adams Gym.
"I'm proud of these guys," Gray said after his Tigers drew even with the league at 4-4. "They're finally starting to understand and know what it feels like to play winning basketball.
"It was kind of an up-and-down (first half of the
season), but they're starting to believe now that they can beat some teams if they play the way they're capable of playing."
This one put that belief to the acid test. After bolting to a 14-2 lead, Urbana saw the Chargers methodically chip away.
"To their credit, Urbana got out and pressured us, and we got out of our game," Centennial coach Tim Lavin said. "But we fought back."
By the final minute of the third quarter, the Tigers' once-imposing advantage was completely wiped out, Centennial taking its first lead at 32-31 on an Eric McClarey layup off a steal.
Led by Mikel Leshoure – who scored seven points in the fourth quarter – the Chargers built leads as big as five points in the period and still were ahead 46-45 with under 20 seconds left in regulation.
Then came a rapid-fire sequence of heroic plays that made this one too good not to go to overtime.
After an Urbana timeout, Ryne Brownfield made a strong move to the basket for a layup and was fouled.
"Coach asked me if I wanted it," the senior guard said, "and I said, 'Yes,' and he drew up a play for me. I was just lucky to go in and get it to fall."
When Brownfield (13 points) completed the three-point play at the foul line, the Tigers led 48-46 with 15.8 seconds left.
But the Chargers had an answer in Leshoure, who was a force all night with game highs of 17 points and 12 rebounds. Breaking free for a pull-up jumper in the lane with 8.8 seconds left, Leshoure sank the shot to tie it at 48.
"There were so many good plays down the stretch," Gray said.
In the remaining seconds of regulation, the Tigers had to sweat out a turnover. But when a three-point shot by Centennial's Layton Seeber bounced off the rim, it was on to OT.
The Chargers drew first blood, on a three-point basket by Tyler Stefan. And they remained ahead, 53-52, with (does this sound familiar?) under 20 seconds left.
Then it was Alan Douglas' turn to take a crack at the role of hero, and the senior forward delivered, sinking a shot with 17.3 seconds left to give Urbana its first lead of overtime at 54-53.
"I came off the screen, turned around and I saw I had an open shot and I took it," said Douglas, who joined Leshoure in the double-double club with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Centennial's bid to retake the lead missed the mark when Stefan did likewise on a shot from the right baseline. Tigers center Mark Williams grabbed the rebound, was quickly fouled and sank 1 of 2 free throws with 5.1 seconds remaining.
The Chargers had one final opportunity, but Seeber missed a contested jump shot from the right wing just before the final buzzer.
"That's a huge win for us guys' confidence because Centennial is always a tough game," Brownfield said. "I just think it shows the strength of the conference. Any team can come out on any given night and win."