Cowper, Chargers hold off Tigers for thrilling win

Cowper, Chargers hold off Tigers for thrilling win

URBANA — Even as numerous players stepped up to score for both Centennial and Urbana during Tuesday night's boys' basketball battle, the Chargers' Bryson Cowper stood above the rest.

Even as chippy play resulted in both Cowper and Urbana senior Keanu Duke going down with injuries, Cowper continued to rise to the occasion.

And even as the Tigers chipped away at a Charger lead that ballooned to 11 with just 5:01 to play, Cowper kept finding the bottom of the net.

The Centennial junior poured in a game-high 21 points as the constant for his team, which held on for a wild 66-64 victory over Urbana at the Tigers' Oscar Adams Gym.

"We went through a lot with close records, losing by one or two (points) last year," Cowper said. "So this year we're kind of used to always having tight games. It's just getting it done in the fourth quarter."

The slender 5-foot-9 athlete certainly isn't wrong about the Chargers (3-4) and their penchant for nail-biting affairs. In Centennial's seven games this season, five have been decided by fewer than 10 points — and the Chargers now have won a pair.

"It feels good to come out on the right side," Centennial coach Tim Lavin said. "Because we did this last year. I think 20 of our 29 games were decided by single digits. So it's nice we've been more on the other end, and hopefully that'll be a trend to continue throughout the year."

It seemed likely the Chargers and Tigers (3-4) would take things down to the wire given the 23-22 halftime tally, which favored Centennial.

But after a sluggish first half in which typical offensive stars like the Chargers' Jaden Roberts-Thomas and Urbana's Corez Anderson were held to zero and three points, respectively, few could have anticipated the wild swings that came to dominate the final two periods.

That was accompanied by physical play, a product of the two teams' familiarity as well as multiple players transferring from Centennial to Urbana prior to this season.

"I got to play against Payton (Sheen), one of my best friends since elementary school," Cowper said, referencing one of those three transfers who netted 13 points for the Tigers. "So that was really fun. It was really competitive."

The intensity, which was heightened by Cowper taking a nasty spill late in the third period, only ramped up when Roberts-Thomas knocked down Duke with a hard block moments later, forcing Duke and his 14-point production from the contest.

The Tigers responded to the injury, as well as that 11-point deficit, by forcing the Chargers into uncomfortable spots with a full-court press.

"That's our problem with inexperience we have," Lavin said. "You try to tell them about not playing to the excitement of the crowd, and I think we did that and started making plays we shouldn't have."

As time wound down, however, Centennial began breaking through Urbana's defensive pressure, twice finding sophomore Spencer Evans for easy layups. Even then, the Tigers refused to break.

Senior Kamari Ray-Davis converted a layup of his own with 11.6 seconds to play, tying the game at 64. But Charger senior Tommy Makabu, who faced four fouls for most of the second half and still finished with 20 points, drained a pair of free throws with 7 seconds to play before Centennial held on.

"Honestly, I think a few of our players stepped up that we didn't expect to step up," Cowper said. "We just did what Coach said: not to get the ball in the middle, push it and get it to the open guy."

Since these two squads don't square off again until Feb. 9, the victory will hold a little extra significance for Cowper and Co.

"Oh, yeah," Cowper said with a grin. "Most definitely."