CHAMPAIGN – Donald Stewart hopes Champaign Central will get another crack at fellow Big 12 power Decatur Eisenhower during the postseason.
In the meantime, he and the rest of the Maroons have some healing to do after the Panthers made it painfully clear Friday night which is the superior team right now.
"It's early in the season, so it's like a wound that can be licked," Stewart said after a 90-80 loss to the Panthers at Combes Gym that wasn't nearly that close. "It's not a wound that gets infected. We can lick our wounds, get better as a team, get together as a team."
Both teams entered undefeated. Both were 2-0 in the Big 12. Both are ranked among the top five in the state in the Class 3A poll.
And for nearly three quarters, this much-anticipated showdown lived up to the hype. Then No. 4 Eisenhower went on a game-changing surge for which No. 5 Central had no answer on either end of the floor.
Trailing 55-51, the Maroons saw the Panthers score 20 of the next 27 points. Purdue signee Lewis Jackson (26 points) led the balanced onslaught with six points. Sophomore Jarod Oldham (20 points) contributed five. And when Brennan Madison capped the flurry with a basket at 4:38 of the fourth quarter, Central had fallen into a 75-58 hole.
Panthers coach Jeremy Moore credited his team's defense for fueling the 27-7 flurry.
"We knew we were going to score," said Moore, whose team entered with an 80.8 scoring average. "What we talked about at halftime is, if we get stops, we're going to beat them, and we could bust this thing open."
As Eisenhower was doing so, the Maroons too often passed up the pass in favor of the quick shot. Too often, that led to a quick miss and a bust-out fast break to the other end by the Panthers.
"One of the things we thought is they panicked offensively," coach Scott Davis said of his Maroons. "Eisenhower's an explosive team. All the sudden instead of being down three, we're down nine, and it seemed like 'How quickly can we come down there and score.' "
With 2 1/2 minutes left, Central cut its deficit to 81-69, giving Davis hope that never was realized.
"That's a four-possession game and that can disappear quickly," he said of the 12-point deficit. "But we were coming down there and stopping and shooting NBA(-range) threes off the dribble.
"At that point, we've got kids that can spot up, we've got kids that can shoot it. All you need to do is draw your defender and look to find the guy that's open. I thought offensively we were just trying to score one against five."
In the end, Central's attack was woefully out of balance. While Verdell Jones (33 points) and Stewart (30) each put up prodigious scoring totals, only four other Maroons scored, none more than eight points.
"It's kind of tough to take," Stewart said of the loss. "All we can do is come back, get better, work on our game and get ready for our next game."