Central edges Danville in overtime
CHAMPAIGN — Chanice Willis fell to the floor after her last-second shot rimmed out as the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation, sending Tuesday’s game against Danville to overtime. Pancho Moore leaned back in his seat after 32 minutes of shouting, jumping up and down, urging his Champaign Central girls’ basketball team to play defense with intensity, and finally sitting after the shouting and jumping earned him a technical foul.
The intensity, though, picked back up when the whistle sounded. The Maroons pulled away for a 52-49 win, their fourth in a row after winning three of their first 14 games.
“It’s been fantastic,” Moore said of the winning streak. “It’s changing the culture around here. I kept telling them all season long, there were a lot of games we were in and we just didn’t have that same passion for defense. This week has been great for the girls because now they’re understanding defense wins ballgames. They’re excited, and they’re learning.”
This season, Moore’s main objective was to alter the cul-ture of a program that had won 10 games in the last two years.
The Maroons (7-11) took their lumps early, literally and figuratively. All-Area returning junior Fess Hawkins injured her ankle the first game of the season, starting point guard Kayla Wilson injured her knee, and a few other contributors went down for stretches. With those impediments, they lost 11 of their first 12 games.
But now, Moore’s team is healthy and clicking. Last week, they topped Rantoul and Centennial before taking down upstart Urbana. And that culture is changing.
“I feel like it was more cliquey last year than it is this year,” Hawkins said. “Now we’re like family. We speak to each other in the hallways, we’re so close, we’re willing to lay down anything for our young teammates. The older kids are willing to advocate for the younger kids in the classrooms. We’re just so willing to go that extra mile for our teammates.”
That defensive will showed on Tuesday. After trailing 38-26 late in the third quarter, they didn’t allow the Vikings (9-8) to score another field goal in regulation, all the while playing frenetic, pressure defense.
Hawkins, who blocked three shots, scored 19 of her game-high 21 points in the second half and overtime, igniting a 10-3 run that brought her team back to within striking distance. Hawkins nabbed a steal and scored with 25 seconds remaining to tie the game.
Willis scored 14 points in the game, including four in overtime, and Wilson added eight as the backcourt duo held steady.
“I felt the first half, we just couldn’t find a rhythm,” Moore said. “Then in the second half, I just told them to turn it up, do what you do, get them tired, just keep putting pressure on them, the entire second half, being down 12, 13 points, it’s a battle. But I’m just proud of these girls to have that resilience to fight back.”
Megan Burton scored 16 points for Danville, and Mikala Hall added 10, but the Vikings scored five points in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we were in pretty good shape in the third quarter,” Danville coach Brian Anderson said. “They’re on a hot streak. We knew it was going to be a ballgame because they’re feeling pretty good about themselves right now. … Once (Hawkins) got going, the energy level cranked up a little bit, and then we just melted. I’ve never really seen anything like it. We really struggled when the game got tight late.”
The Maroons now have won more games than they did in either of the past two seasons with 10 games left in the regular season. Last season, they didn’t win two games in a row.
But ask Moore and he’ll say this winning streak was all part of the plan.
“I absolutely did (expect this),” he said. “I actually thought it would be more. I knew out of the gate those first few games would test us, but honestly I thought after that we’d win like 17, 18 in a row. That was the mentality.
“We got healthy. The new year turned, and we just kind of turned with it.”