Parkland basketball

The Parkland men’s basketball team celebrates while John Wood’s Brandon Knight crouches down after the Cobras beat the Trail Blazers 80-75 on Sunday afternoon in the Region 24 championship game at Cass Gymnasium on the campus of Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield.

CHAMPAIGN — Anthony Figueroa is a realist.

The 10th-year Parkland men’s basketball coach realizes what his program accomplished on Sunday afternoon by winning the Region 24 championship following an 80-75 victory against John Wood in Springfield won’t get the attention it deserves.

“We won Sunday, and it’s not going to be a big deal to a lot of people because Illinois won,” Figueroa said Monday. “I really want our community to take notice of what we’ve done. Our players really, really deserve it.”

Brad Underwood’s Illini and the program’s rabid fan base are floating high this week. Understandable since 17 years have elapsed since Illinois won a Big Ten title until Nebraska upset Wisconsin 74-73 on Sunday afternoon, paving the way for the Illini to hold off Iowa 74-72 on Sunday night at State Farm Center to clinch a share of the league title with the Badgers. As a result, Illinois earned the top seed in this week’s Big Ten tournament.

Parkland, after winning the Mid-West Athletic Conference regular-season title, earned the top seed in the Region 24 tournament and lived up to the distinction on Sunday.

The Cobras (20-7) built a 49-26 halftime lead and then held off a furious second-half comeback by the third-seeded Trail Blazers at Cass Gymnasium on the Lincoln Land Community College campus.

Their reward? A spot in the 16-team NJCAA Division II national tournament that tips off on March 15 at Mary Miller Gymnasium on the Danville Area Community College campus.

No bubble talk existed around the Cobras this season. No discussion of what seed they might wind up with at the national tournament. Because Parkland had to earn its way into the 16-team field that will descend upon Vermilion County next week.

And, for the fourth time in Figueroa’s tenure, they did. Parkland won its only national title in 1986, but no other coach to roam the sidelines with the Cobras has advanced the program to the national tournament more times than Figueroa.

This year’s triumph means even more since the last time Parkland qualified for the chance to win a national championship, the 2020 tournament was canceled in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, almost two years later, the Cobras will actually get to make the short drive from its home base in Champaign to Danville.

“It’s a great feeling, obviously,” Figueroa said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Having grown up in Champaign and eventually starring on the Centennial boys’ basketball team in the mid-1990s, the ties Figueroa has to basketball in this community are deep. He’s dug in even more with the consistent success he’s established at Parkland.

The Cobras have compiled a 219-78 record with Figueroa in charge, have never had a losing season and have won at least 20 games in seven of those seasons.

“We just try to be consistent. That’s all we’ve tried to do,” Figueroa said. “It’s kept our expectations high, and how we’ve carried ourselves every day, we think it’s translated. We tell our guys it’s different here. We try to be different, and we try to stick to that. I’m just glad the guys have been rewarded.”

Parkland has consistently spread about its scoring this season and in previous seasons under Figueroa. Sunday’s win was no different, with four players in double figures.

Savon Wykle scored a team-high 21 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists, but he was supported by 18 points from Daniel Reed, 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists from Josh Rivers and 11 points from Marcus Johnson.

Champaign Central graduate A’Kieon Gill nearly joined them, scoring nine points off the bench and making 7 of 8 free throws despite struggling with his shot (he missed all five of his three-point attempts) and taking care of the ball (he committed seven turnovers).

“That’s who we are in having balanced scoring,” Figueroa said. “The guys trust each other and the abilities that each guy has. We’ve had six to seven different leading scorers throughout the season.”

A season that will continue this week. Monday was an off day for the players and Tuesday the Cobras will find out their first-round opponent in Danville when the NJCAA reveals the pairings and seeds.

Then, it’s back to work for Figueroa’s program. He knows no other way.

But he, his assistant coaches and his players did enjoy some down time on Sunday night once they got back to Champaign. A team dinner at Aspen Tap House — Figueroa joked they had to find a place big enough to hold the entire team — allowed the Cobras to relish what they accomplished.

While watching the Illinois-Iowa game, too. Figueroa understands his hometown and its allegiances. When the Illini are playing well in March, the entire community turns out to support the orange and blue.

But the way he’s kept Parkland relevant and successful, maybe the community needs to turn some of its focus to the green, gold and black, too.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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