Chargers edge Maroons in 'always fantastic' rivalry atmosphere

Jan. 12—CHAMPAIGN — If you showed up an hour before tipoff, you were already too late.

Friday night's boys' basketball game at Champaign Central between the Maroons and crosstown rival Centennial sold out long before the start of the varsity contest. Administration had to start turning people away at the doors during the JV game, only letting in those who pre-ordered tickets.

"I'm trying to bring that '05-'09 vibe of the Central basketball program back, and it was definitely that type of environment here (Friday night)," Central coach PJ Keaton said. "The second quarter of the JV game, it was pretty much filled."

Both schools' student sections filled the lower level of Combes Gym, standing shoulder to shoulder, opposite their team's bench. They chanted back and forth all game long, just like the cheerleaders, who even had a face-to-face cheer-off at midcourt just before the start of the fourth quarter.

This is Centennial coach Tim Lavin's 31st year coaching in Champaign and his 23rd for the Chargers, and he said the atmosphere of that matchup has always been like this for every one of them. It was so loud Friday that he had to whistle to get his players' attention.

"It's always fantastic," Lavin said. "It doesn't matter what our records are or what part of the season it is, it's going to be a good crowd, and it's going to be fun."

After 31 minutes of nail-biting action Friday, Centennial made a few plays to pull ahead and seal a 61-52 win in the final seconds.

"Craziest game I've ever played. Loudest game I've ever played," Centennial sophomore Jadin Schilb said. "Especially when it's a town rivalry, they're going to play their hardest and want to have bragging rights. They want to beat us, and we want to beat them."

The Maroons (9-10) held a 13-6 edge late in the first quarter, but the Chargers (12-6) went on a 7-0 run in the last minute and change to tie it at 13.

The second quarter turned into a track meet in which both teams seemingly scored at will. A couple minutes into the period, Schilb hit a three-pointer to give Centennial its first lead at 18-17. On Central's ensuing possession, senior Torion Rhone made a three to take the lead right back. The Chargers went back on top their next time down the court when O'Neil Johnson drilled another from beyond the arc.

As the final seconds of the half ticked off the clock, Rhone kicked the ball to wide-open senior Axel Baldwin in the right corner for one last three-pointer, giving the Maroons a 34-30 lead and sending the Bleacher Bums into madness.

"Both teams gave great effort. They played hard and left it on the floor," Keaton said. "As a fan, it was a good game to watch. I was coaching and giving my team adjustments, but it was a great game to watch."

Centennial battled back to take a 43-42 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The teams traded baskets until the Chargers made a few consecutive stops and made a few consecutive shots with less than two minutes remaining. They went up by as much as 11 with just under a minute to go when Schilb passed the ball ahead to junior Kayden Peat, who laid it in, drew a foul and made the free throw.

"Amazing," Schilb said of those final seconds when the winning feeling started to sink in. "I was throwing up my hands. I threw a touchdown pass for a foul, and I'm pretty sure that sealed the game."

Schilb led all scorers with 20 points, and Peat added 13 for Centennial. Junior Chris Bush led Central with 18 points, and Baldwin put up 16.

The Chargers have taken a one-game-at-a-time approach to this season, which has contributed to much of their success. They celebrated the win Friday night, but they know the Maroons will be back soon with that same competitive fire.

"You're proud of the guys and how they executed at the end," Lavin said. "You're happy for them because these are bragging rights, but (Central) will be back at our place in less than a month. We'll enjoy it now and get ready for our next game."