Champaign rivals, STM, Danville shoot for titles
The same 2-for-1 special will be offered Friday night at Champaign Central, Danville Area Community College and Normal Community.
Two boys’ basketball teams are seeking one treat: another game to play.
Centennial and Central will play the tiebreaker in their season city rivalry series at Combes Gym in a Class 3A regional title game.
At DACC’s Mary Miller Gymnasium, St. Thomas More and St. Anne are seeking Elite Eight berths in their Class 1A sectional showdown.
At Normal Community, the fast-charging Danville Vikings tackle a home team that will have a huge height advantage in a Class 4A regional title game.
At each site, tipoff is 7 p.m.
Centennial (24-4) vs. Central (16-10)
There’s no need for either team to wonder if it can beat the other. A split in the regular season series proves it.
“This is for bragging rights for another year,” said Centennial coach Tim Lavin, whose squad is on a 15-game winning streak. “I’m happy we’re playing like we’re playing. We’re sharing the ball pretty well.”
Central’s win was on its own court more than three months ago (on Dec. 6). Coach Wayne McClain’s Maroons have won six of their last seven games.
“We’re playing well at the right time,” McClain said. “Our defense has been solid. Sometimes it tends to be better in certain games. We’re capable of beating anybody on a given night.”
Coaches use that line as motivation for their teams. For McClain, there’s validity in that statement. One of Central’s late-season wins was on the road at Lincoln, which is top-ranked in the state’s final Class 3A poll.
“We played so hard against Lincoln,” McClain said. “That gave them a shot of confidence.”
This is the ninth time in the past 10 years that the Champaign rivals have played one another in the postseason.
“The way the regional format is set up, it’s not surprising,” Lavin said.
Both coaches have used this season’s previous games as learning experiences.
“The second game against them, we cut our turnovers about in half, did a better job of boxing out and getting back on defense,” Lavin said. “We hope to do those things well and challenge their shots.
“In a crosstown rivalry game, it’s more about keeping your composure.”
Central’s McClain will look for any possible edge. One could be the home court.
“I’d rather play them at Combes Gym than anywhere else in the state,” he said. “The home court is huge for us.”
UI recruit Michael Finke has averaged 22.4 points during the past 10 Centennial games but has been surrounded by a capable supporting cast. In those games, seven other teammates have reached double figures at least once.
“In different games, different guys are stepping up,” Lavin said.
One is the lone sophomore on the 15-player varsity roster, Quin Nottingham. He’s had games of 16 and 10 points in the past month.
“Quin plays hard,” Lavin said. “That’s one thing a lot of high school kids don’t understand. When you play hard, good things will happen.”
McClain acknowledges that as the Big 12 Conference champion, Centennial “has been a little more consistent than anyone else in the area. They have an inside force and perimeter guys who can make shots.”
Central doesn’t lack for offensive firepower, either. Of the 15 players on the team’s varsity roster, 11 have scored in double figures at least once. During the past seven games, six players have led — or shared — the team lead in scoring.
Wesley Dee, Kameron Rowan, Isiah Smith, Sean Suggs, Davion Watson and Noah Wells have been the steadiest point-makers down the stretch.
Centennial played its semifinal game Tuesday, 24 hours before the Maroons played. McClain doesn’t believe that will be a factor.
“Kids don’t think about things like that,” McClain said. “We just had a game, and we’re ready to go.”
The winner will play Tuesday in the Mattoon Sectional.
Danville (11-16) vs. Normal Community (21-8)
The Vikings are 0-2 this season against the Ironmen, each time losing by double figures. Danville coach Ted Houpt views those games from a different perspective than the final score.
“We were in both games in the fourth quarter,” Houpt said. “I don’t want to oversimplify things, but they made shots, and we haven’t when we needed to.”
That pattern has changed as tournament time drew close. The Vikings have won four of their last five games, including Tuesday’s semifinal win against top-seeded Bradley-Bourbonnais.
“The kids kept believing,” Houpt said. “Almost every game was a fourth-quarter game, and we couldn’t always knock down shots. The last few weeks, we’ve gotten some wins, and that has relieved some pressure.
“We’re not happy just getting a couple of tournament wins. We plan on competing.”
Danville faces a giant challenge. Normal Community starts two 6-foot-7 players and has two others standing at least 6-6 who get playing time.
“Normal is a pretty imposing group,” Houpt said. “They look like a college team. It’s not just height. They will outweigh us at about every position. They have big, strong kids.”
Denzel Smith and Kylen Butler have been two of the Vikings’ catalysts during the late-season run.
“Kylen has had to learn the point guard position, which he had never played,” Houpt said. “It usually takes years to fully get a hold of it.
“The improvement he has made and the control he has is fantastic.”
The 6-7 Smith has scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games, averaging 28.7 in that span.
“Denzel has gone to another level,” Houpt said. “The numbers he’s putting up are incredible.”
Butler and Smith are two of the four seniors who will join junior Aubrey Duncan in the starting lineup. Victor Askew and Jarhed Watson round out the starting five.
Askew has helped pick up the tempo.
“He usually guards the other team’s best man. He dives on the floor after loose balls. He doesn’t take any plays off,” Houpt said. “He never gives up.”
That lineup leaves another senior, Kemony Lester, as the first sub off the bench.
“We like the energy he brings,” Houpt said.
The winner will play Tuesday in the East Moline Sectional.
STM (21-7) vs. St. Anne (25-4)
Six days after STM’s girls’ team achieved a first — a state championship — the boys’ program also is seeking a milestone win. A win Friday night would give coach Matt Kelley’s team its first sectional championship.
Last week, his players were in the stands. This week, last week’s players will be among those leading the cheers.
“Both groups care about each other,” Kelley said. “The girls are supportive of us.”
Though freshmen (Doug Wallen and Clavin Davis) are the Sabers’ top two scorers, another group of players has provided the impetus for success.
“Our four seniors (all of whom are starters) are the leaders of this team,” Kelley said. “They’ve been building toward making this run. It’s a great group who doesn’t care who gets credit or who scores, as long as we do.
“They are more than willing to pass the ball to the open guy.”
Storm Joop is the team’s assists leader and Kelley said “usually guards the other team’s best player.”
Michael Plecki is one of the three double-figure scorers, and the left-hander has the top single-game scoring performance (31 points).
Kyler Jones, recovered from a soccer injury, scored a team-high 19 points in an overtime win in the sectional semifinals Tuesday against sixth-rated Arthur-Lovington.
The other senior, Keaton Davis, is the team’s most accurate free throw shooter (80.9 percent) through 28 games.
The Sabers and St. Anne are similar-style teams. Both like to attack the basket.
“It should be an up-and-down (the court) game,” Kelley said. “We’re ready for that type of game. It should be fun.”
The season has taken STM to a point it had hoped to reach.
“This was the goal, to be ready to make a run come February and March,” Kelley said.
The winner advances to a Tuesday super-sectional at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena, a facility the boys are familiar with after watching two girls’ state tournament games last week at the same venue.
Neither of the possible opponents, Heyworth or Putnam County, received votes in the final Class 1A state poll. Then again, neither did unheralded St. Thomas More.
St. Anne was tied for 16th in the last rankings.