MATTOON — Talk about extremes.
A year ago, the Champaign Central boys’ basketball team looked nothing like a challenger to one of the state’s best Class 3A squads.
The Maroons didn’t just challenge Springfield Lanphier on Tuesday night.
No. They beat the state’s second-ranked team, stunning the Lions 78-73 in a Class 3A Mattoon Sectional semifinal game.
“March is a basketball time, and that’s on every level,” Central coach Wayne McClain said. “We’re fortunate enough to still be playing.”
Still playing and playing well. Sean Suggs led all scorers with 28 points and hit his first six shots, including three three-pointers en route to 16 first-quarter points. He attacked the basket frequently in the second half, and his reverse layup with 2 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter pushed Central’s lead to 71-64.
“He’s amazing,” guard Isiah Smith said. “He knocks (shots) down in practice, so it’s nothing new.”
Kameron Rowan added 16 points and four assists, and Smith contributed 11 points.
All three are seniors. All three were around for last year’s demoralizing season that saw Central lose its only postseason game. Now the Maroons (18-10) are two wins from reaching Peoria and the state semifinals for the first time since 2008.
“I feel like last year nobody cared about even playing basketball,” Rowan said. “It was like everybody was on something else. I don’t know if it was girls, football, baseball or what. Coach McClain has brought us over to his house, and we watch film with him. He wants us to be a family, and that’s how it shows on the court.”
Central withstood an attacking 1-3-1 zone defense the Lions (25-2) displayed and made critical plays in the second half to prevail. Critical, but not necessarily flashy plays. Like Luke Beesley taking a charge on Tennessee recruit Larry Austin Jr. with Central leading 48-43. The next Central possession resulted in a three-pointer from Wesley Dee to put the Maroons ahead 51-43 with 3:20 left in the third quarter.
Beesley finished with seven points, nine rebounds and five blocks.
“Nobody talks about Luke’s defense,” McClain said. “He’s been a stellar defensive player for us all year. We could not win without Luke. He’s an unsung hero to our team, and he’s like a goalie to our defense. He intimidates people because he changes a lot of shots. He doesn’t get a lot of ink, but he’s been great for us all year.”
Or Davion Watson’s left-handed layup in the final minute to extend the Maroons’ lead to 74-69 with 32.2 seconds left. Lanphier never cut its deficit to fewer than four points the rest of the game after Watson made only his second field goal of the game.
“Davion came in and made some big (plays),” Suggs said. “Coach told us a week before that we’re going to need everybody for this game, and that you can’t come out here scared. We didn’t come out scared.”
And Jamal Stovall’s inspired play off the bench in the second half. The junior guard sealed the win with two free throws with 6.5 seconds left to pad Central’s lead to 78-70. With less than a minute left in the third quarter, Stovall fed Beesley with a deft pass for an easy layup to increase Central’s lead to 60-52.
Central never trailed despite only making 12 of 28 from the free throw line and committing 23 turnovers.
Whether Lincoln (30-2) or Chatham-Glenwood (20-11) survives tonight’s second semifinal game at Mattoon, Central has the confidence it can have several clutch performances from a variety of players. Lanphier coach Blake Turner and his Lions — who received 25 points from Xavier Bishop and 18 points from Austin before the Tennessee recruit fouled out late in the fourth quarter — witnessed it firsthand Tuesday.
“We knew that they were a good shooting team,” Turner said. “They were able to play from ahead. I don’t think we did a good job with our back levels defensively. I thought we did a great job up front getting traps, but we let them out of traps too easy, and they were getting some easy passes and moving the ball. That’s what happens.”
Plus, like McClain said, it’s March. A month the veteran coach with three state championship rings from his days at Peoria Manual is fond of. His current players are warming up to what this month can bring about, too.
“From our record last year, I feel a lot of teams and players overlooked us,” Suggs said. “This is a whole new year with a great coach. He’s just turned our season around. We’re just going to try to keep winning.”