Maroons get even with rival
CHAMPAIGN — Now they know.
Plain and simple, Central's Maroons have proof positive that their beliefs are based on reality and not a misguided perception of their abilities.
Two weeks after Central's girls' basketball team suffered a 28-point blowout loss against their state-ranked rivals from Centennial, the Maroons exacted revenge Thursday night before a boisterous crowd in Combes Gymnasium.
With Jakeenya Evans, Laura Litchfield and Olivia Sheehan sharing the fourth-quarter heroics, the Maroons upended the Chargers 51-47 and then were mobbed by the student cheering section before they could exchange postgame handshakes with their opponents.
"I don't think one of our kids didn't think we couldn't win tonight," Central coach Staci Starkweather said.
Central did it despite falling behind early (10-3) and then enduring a 10-turnover third quarter in which it trailed 37-29 with eight minutes remaining.
"We did what we didn't do the last game," Litchfield said. "We followed the game plan. We boxed out. We followed our shots, and when we had turnovers, we didn't get down."
She didn't mention the biggest factor. The Maroons owned the final four minutes of the fourth quarter against the state's sixth-ranked Class 3A team. As the clocked showed 3:30 remaining, Central was in a 44-38 hole.
From there, it was showtime for Evans, Litchfield and Sheehan.
Evans scored six of her game-high 19 points in the final 3 1/2 minutes. Sheehan — who had attempted only one shot in the first 30 minutes — drained a three-pointer from the right side with 1:45 left to lift the Maroons into a 45-44 lead, and they never trailed again.
Litchfield, who was 1 of 3 from the free throw line, sealed the victory with 6.3 seconds left, netting 2 of 2 charity tosses to expand Central's 49-47 lead into its final margin.
"I ran through in my mind what I needed to do, then I relaxed and shot," she said.
Perhaps the biggest of Evans' baskets came a half-minute after Chantal Meacham's third three-pointer had rallied Centennial into a 47-47 deadlock with 1:01 to play.
The 5-foot-7 Evans drove to the basket and missed, but she gathered the rebound and scored the tiebreaking points with 37.3 seconds left.
"She is a kid who wants to win and the ball seems to find her," Starkweather said. "Her and Olivia are our two most competitive kids in practice."
Sheehan showed her composure when she launched her three-pointer in the final two minutes. She didn't give it a second thought.
"I was so into the moment," she said. "I just knew I needed to do something to help my team."
That's the attitude that Starkweather wants.
"She's a shooter, and I tell her, 'Don't hesitate,' on a shot," Starkweather said. "She knows when she's open or not. It was huge that she had the confidence. She had played a great defensive game and still had the legs to put up that shot."
She had more than the physical ability to hit from long range, Thomas said.
"That took a lot of guts to take that shot," Thomas said, "and it was a great shot."
Central scored 22 of the 32 final-quarter points.
"We had to listen to our coaches, share the ball, slow down and stop rushing things," Evans said.
Litchfield and Kewanee Garrett each had four assists for Central.
Said Centennial coach Susan Thomas: "I told them in the fourth quarter, for the first time this season, we became fragmented and became individual players, That's what cost us the game."
Beyond that, the Maroons held a decisive 32-18 rebounding edge. Cheyenne Hedrington grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. Johynn-a Evans and Jakeenya Evans each collected seven boards.
Chelsea Cross and Katelynn Martinez led Centennial (22-4) with five rebounds apiece.
Cross was the catalyst as the Chargers rallied from a 19-15 first-half deficit into a 25-23 lead in the third quarter. She tallied all 10 of Centennial's points in the four-minute stretch.
The Maroons made 8 of 11 fourth-quarter shots, in contrast to Centennial's 3-for-11 accuracy down the stretch.
"The difference was our inability to score, put the press on and create easy baskets," Thomas said.
Centennial and Central are the top two seeds for a Class 3A regional that will be played next month at Combes Gym. Thomas said Thursday's outcome will have no bearing on a possible third meeting, which could only occur in the title game.
"This team is incredibly confident," she said. "This doesn't shake our confidence."
It certainly boosts the Maroons' spirits.
"Now we know they are beatable," Sheehan said. "This gives us more confidence. We know we'll have to play stronger. Both teams will have a purpose to play for."
Cross led Centennial with 14 points. Meacham had 11.