CHAMPAIGN – Maybe it's because Donald Stewart's been there, done that. Twice before, in fact.
So while the Champaign Central Maroons and their fans reveled in a Class 3A regional basketball championship Friday night, the senior had his eyes on far bigger prizes.
"To be honest, I'm excited because a lot of the players from the JV team last year came up and get this feeling," Stewart said after streaking Central fended off host Centennial 81-69 in front of about 1,800 Battle of Champaign enthusiasts. "I've had this three years in a row. I mean, it's an exciting feeling, a great feeling, especially beating Centennial on their court.
"But what I really want to get is that sectional finals (victory) and that super-sectional."
For Stewart & Co., that so-far elusive quest begins anew Tuesday, when the Maroons (21-7) will face Normal West (16-14) in the Mount Zion Sectional semifinals.
To get there, Central needed to win the season tiebreaker against its intracity rival.
"It seemed like it was a game of runs," said coach Scott Davis after his Maroons ran their winning streak to seven. "Finally, we got up about 10 points and were able to hold on."
They did so with typical firepower, scoring at least 80 points for the 10th time this season.
Verdell Jones led the Maroons with 22 points while performing in front of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, who has offered the senior point guard a scholarship. Eighteen of Jones' points came in the second half, when he did not miss a shot from the field or the foul line.
"He was great in the second half," Central center Chris Lehmann said.
Stewart (18 points, eight rebounds), Keith Biggers (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Zander Culver (12) also scored in double figures for the Maroons.
After Centennial drew within 58-56 late in the third quarter, Jones hit a three-pointer to ignite a wild final 13 seconds in the period.
Jerry Exum then converted a Maroons steal into another basket. Finally, while guarding a Centennial inbounds pass with time running out in the period, Stewart grabbed the ball barely out of the passer's hands and quickly put it in the basket to cap a 7-0 Central run. Just like that, Central was back ahead 65-56.
"That stretch at the end of the third quarter just killed us," Chargers coach Tim Lavin said.