CHAMPAIGN — They won’t have to share the navy blue T-shirts.
Ones that say Big 12 Conference champions.
Ones the Centennial boys’ basketball team sported coming out of its own locker room after a 73-41 rout of Normal West on Friday night.
The easy win allowed Centennial to pose for pictures on its home court taking full satisfaction the Chargers won the Big 12 title outright thanks to a dominating second-half performance that allowed Centennial coach Tim Lavin to rest his starters midway through the fourth quarter.
The players didn’t know beforehand they’d have an extra piece of apparel to remember their dominating run through the league.
“I just walked in and saw the shirts,” said Khalil Toombs, who scored 14 points, grabbed five rebounds and handed out a game-high four assists for Centennial. “I’ve never won anything like this, so it’s good to get this going into the regionals.”
Friday night’s triumph secured Centennial its seventh Big 12 title in program history, but first for Michael Finke and his senior classmates. The last time Centennial won a conference crown in 2010, the Illinois signee and his peers were still in middle school.
“It’s awesome,” said Finke, who finished with a game-high 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and snared seven rebounds. “I’ve been working for it since I’ve been here. I hadn’t won one yet since being in the program. It feels good.”
The two Centennial teams that previously celebrated an outright league championship made plenty of memories. Specifically in the postseason. Five years ago the Chargers won the school’s only Class 3A state title. Four years ago Lavin’s team placed fourth. All told, three of the first six Big 12 championship teams the Chargers have had at the school made it to at least the Elite Eight.
So, based on history, the Chargers have to like their odds of reaching Peoria’s Carver Arena in four weeks, right?
“There’s a long way to go,” Lavin said. “It’d be nice, but I’m just happy we’re playing well right now. Hopefully it continues.”
Two regular season games remain for Centennial before the Chargers can worry about the postseason, which starts for them with the 3A Champaign Central Regional at nearby Combes Gym.
If the top-seeded Chargers — who have yet to lose in 2014 and take a 12-game winning streak into the final week of the regular season — can get past the field of Central, Mahomet-Seymour, Urbana and Rantoul, the possibility of meeting Springfield Lanphier in a sectional semifinal at Mattoon lingers. Lanphier is the state’s top-ranked 3A team, is unbeaten and has Tennessee recruit Larry Austin Jr. Two other Springfield-area teams in Lincoln, ranked third in the most recent statewide poll, and Chatham Glenwood, which beat Centennial last year in a sectional championship game and has Texas A&M commit Peyton Allen, are the top seeds in their respective regionals that feed into the Mattoon Sectional.
“The postseason, you always want to play the best competition,” Finke said, “and the Big 12 is just a great conference. You’ve got D-I players all around in Marcus Bartley (at MacArthur) and Denzel Smith (at Danville), who’s a D-I talent. You’ve got talent everywhere, so going against that, it’s going to help us in the long run.”
But all the postseason talk among the Chargers is on hold. For now. Play like the Chargers did in the second half, though, after Centennial only led 29-23 at halftime, and watch out. Finke sank two long-range three-pointers early in the third quarter, Toombs supplied a steady all-around game and Dedric Byrd (nine points, eight rebounds) pushed the pace. Frequently.
“We couldn’t get anything going in the first half,” Finke said. “Khalil was doing what he could, but no one else could really follow him. The third quarter we stepped up and took it over.”
Lavin enjoyed seeing his big man step out and make his two second-half three-pointers after he missed on his only two three-point attempts in the first half.
“Michael’s been in a little slump from the arc,” Lavin said. “It’s nice to see him come out of it, especially getting near the postseason. Our intensity defensively picked up. We gave them too many open shots in the first half. We got out and challenged them.”
Open shots were few and far between for the Wildcats after halftime. Normal West shot 34 percent from the field (14 of 41) for the game and only made five field goals in the second half.
“Our defense has gotten really better,” Toombs said. “We’re stopping the ball, boxing out and getting out in transition.”
Conversely, Centennial wound up shooting 61 percent from the floor (31 of 51). Take away the 13 missed three-pointers the Chargers had, and Centennial only missed seven shots inside the arc. The Chargers had seven players finish with at least six points, and guard Kyree Sago gave Centennial a lift early by scoring all eight of his points in the first half.
“We’re playing as a team and looking for the open man,” Finke said. “We’re hitting our shots down low, crashing the boards and doing all the little things.”
Big 12 standings
TEAM CONF. All
Centennial 14-1 21-4
Bloomington 12-3 14-9
Central 10-5 15-9
Normal Comm. 8-5 17-8
MacArthur 8-7 14-9
Normal West 5-10 9-18
Urbana 4-11 8-16
Danville 4-11 7-16
Eisenhower 1-13 4-18