Mt. Zion runs away from Champaign Central, wins regional title

Feb. 24—DANVILLE — The Champaign Central boys' basketball team understood it was a tall task.

Playing Mt. Zion, the fifth-ranked team in Class 3A with a record of 31-1 before Friday night, was not going to be easy.

Let alone with a 3A Danville Regional championship on the line.

That's why Central coach PJ Keaton wasn't discouraged by his team's season-ending 72-39 loss to the Braves.

"I knew it was going to be a hard game," Keaton said. "I told my kids, 'Don't hang your heads. They only lost one game all year. They took down D-I players and all types of teams.' We ran into a juggernaut, and they got the best of us, but it's OK. We're going to keep our heads high, keep working and keep building our program."

Central (14-17) entered the game with a losing record. Inversely, the Braves' only loss was to Metamora, the second-ranked team in 3A, by just three points. Eight of their wins were against Champaign-area teams — Unity, Monticello, Danville, Rantoul and Centennial and Mahomet-Seymour twice each — and they won those games by an average of more than 25 points.

Still, the Maroons went in confident.

"Who cares if they're 31-1? They're just another team," Central junior Aidyn Beck said of the team's mindset going in. "They lace up their shoes and put on their shorts the same way we do. We only have three seniors, and it's their last ride, so at least go out there and compete. You never know what could happen."

Beck was the sole reason Central was competitive early, drilling a trio of three-pointers to get the team's scoring started and tie the game at 9.

"I was feeling hot," Beck said. "Thought we were going to have a good game."

And they were open looks. All Beck had to do was catch and shoot, which told Keaton the offense was moving the ball well.

"After the first three minutes, I said, 'Oh, we're here. We're here to play. This is going to be a game,'" Keaton said.

The Maroons trailed 18-13 after the first quarter. Then, everything went downhill.

Mt. Zion (32-1) went on a 16-0 run to start the second quarter and led 46-20 at halftime.

All of a sudden, the Braves' defense made it so Central couldn't move the ball, and Mt. Zion couldn't miss.

"A couple transition layups. A couple offensive rebounds and kick-out threes. Before we knew it, we were down 10," Keaton said. "It's an uphill battle when they take care of the ball so well. When we got down, they just executed their offense, took their time and got the shots they wanted. It was an easy game for them."

The Braves increased their lead in the third quarter, prompting a running clock for the fourth. Central's final basket of the season came on a transition dunk by junior Chris Bush with four minutes left to play. Bush and Beck led Central with 11 points each, and fellow junior Luke Swanson added nine points.

Those three made up a large chunk of the Maroons' scoring output this year, and they'll be back to lead the way next season. The Maroons are losing Axel Baldwin, Torion Rhone and Landon Robinson to graduation — all uniquely key to the team — but they feel good about where they'll be this time next year.

"We fought a lot of adversity, and we're going to come back stronger," Beck said. "Our underclassmen are willing to work, so it's going to be a good offseason."

The loss marked the end of Keaton's first season as Central's head coach.

One of the 2005 Central graduate's main goals, especially following a 7-22 record last season, was to bring back the vibe from the mid-2000s, when the Maroons won four regional titles in a five-year span and finished third at state in 2008.

"The overall camaraderie around the team and the energy and the passion for basketball I feel like is back with this group," Keaton said. "It's starting to feel like '05-'06 to where we can make something happen in regionals and sectionals. It just takes time."