Central girls can't stop Green Wave

Central girls can't stop Green Wave

URBANA — Second-year Champaign Central girls’ basketball coach Pancho Moore and the Maroons felt the sting of an early postseason loss a year ago.

But it wasn’t nearly the same as Thursday’s 67-51 loss to Class 3A No. 5 Mattoon in the 3A Urbana Regional final.

The Maroons (11-17) have grown in the last year from a program with little identity into a young group built on defensive tenacity and athleticism. And early in the fourth quarter Thursday, they had a legitimate shot to win, down 46-41 with 6:15 remaining.

“It’s night-and-day different,” Moore said. “This time last year, that last game against Urbana (a 64-55 regional semifinal loss), it hurt, but it was nothing like this here.

“This is a team this year that actually started believing that they could beat anybody, and they understand the nature of what we’re building as this program goes on and that if we do what we’re supposed to do, we can go out and hang with the best of them and go out and handle business.”

The Maroons led 17-14 after the first quarter before point guard Kayla Wilson was forced to leave the game intermittently with foul trouble.

Behind 15 points from junior Fess Hawkins and 12 from freshman Chanice Willis, Central was able to hang with the Green Wave (29-1) for over three quarters. But in the end, Mattoon pulled away, with Central fouling until virtually the final whistle.

“I would’ve liked a little more aggressiveness on defense, but Kayla being in foul trouble hurt,” Moore said. “She’s the point guard, and without her, it’s too fast-paced. We need to slow down on offense and speed up on defense. It shifts everything with her having four fouls in the third, and we just couldn’t get over it.”

In the end, though, the Maroons look at this year as a building block.

Moore drilled defensive fundamentals early this season, and that began to pay off after a 4-10 start. The Maroons won six of eight games to start January and advanced to their first regional final since 2010.

“We’ve come a long way,” Hawkins said. “It was down to the basics. We were like, ‘Why are we doing this, we’re varsity.’ But you have to start from the bottom and lay the bricks. We already have the foundation, so it’s time for us to build up for next year. I think we’ll come back even more dangerous than we were this year.”

The Maroons bring back most of their rotation next season and will welcome a freshman class that Moore said will help him fully institute his full-game full-court press.

“I have three more years to make up for this day, and I plan to use it,” Willis said. “I feel like we’re going to take a big step forward since we’re already connected.”

Thursday’s loss stung a little more and will linger a little longer than last year’s postseason defeat. And that’s a good thing for a program that has newfound expectations.

“They understand now, we can beat a top-five team,” Moore said. “And we will be in that top five next year. We’re going to be there. And I think that’s their mentality going into the summer.”

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