All week, Central boys basketball coach Bobby Wright has maintained a certain level of silence when it comes to the possibility of his team winning a state championship. He was focused on the next game, he said, and couldn’t afford to look past that.
But he isn’t silent anymore.
Tionne Williams and Markail Benton blocked back-to-back shots at the rim by Spain Park’s five-star standout Austin Wiley, finally knocking the ball away toward mid-court as time expired. When the horn sounded, Central had escaped with a thrilling 63-61 overtime victory to advance to its second state championship game in school history.
Players celebrated and fans threw red mini-basketballs onto the court. Away from the fracas in a media room underneath the stands, Wright smiled from ear to ear.
“We want to win it,” he said of the upcoming championship game on Saturday against McGill-Toolen. “I’m going to tell you that right now, we want to win it.”
Central, which played in its sixth ever semifinals on Thursday, last went to a state championship game in 1999. It was the Red Devils’ only other title game appearance, and they lost to Grissom in the Class 6A finale.
They had to work hard down the stretch to avoid another semifinals loss on Thursday, after losing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
After knocking down an NBA-range 3-pointer as time expired in the third quarter, Demarkus Lampley sunk a pair of free throws to open the fourth, putting Central ahead 44-34. It completed an 11-0 run that began with 2:20 remaining in the third.
Just as quickly as the Red Devils had seized control, though, Spain Park wrestled it back. The Jaguars erupted for 18 points in the next three minutes, turning a 10-point deficit into a six-point lead. To add to the mounting challenges for Central, senior leader Tre Todd picked up his fifth and final foul with three minutes remaining in regulation.
“I thought I kind of let my team down a little bit,” Todd said. “But as the game progressed, I knew they were going to pick me up and get a win.”
That’s exactly what they did.
Jermond Williams scored seven of his 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a three-point play that put Central ahead 54-53 with 2:30 remaining. Central ran nearly two minutes off the clock trying to put the game away, but Wiley split a pair of free throws to force overtime.
“Tre told me not get scared before the game,” Jermond Williams said. “I felt like I had a point to prove.”
In the extra period, after falling behind by three, 60-57, Keiondre Jakes came up with a big basket for Central to cut the score to 60-59. Lampley was fouled the next time down the floor and made a free throw to tie the game. He missed the second, but Jakes grabbed the board and put the ball in to put Central ahead for good.
On Spain Park’s last-ditch effort, it was Tionne Williams and Benton who denied Wiley, the 6-foot-10 Auburn commit a chance to force another overtime period.
“I know he likes to put his shoulders into you, so I just waited for him to do it,” Williams said. “But then he just faded back. When he faded back, I was ready for it.”
Williams and Benton played a major role in the second half of keeping Wiley in check. Wiley scored 12 points in the first half but just seven in the second half and overtime combined. The Red Devils shut him out in the third quarter and didn’t allow him to get back onto the scoreboard until a basket with 5:25 remaining tied the score at 46-46.
“We just tired to be aggressive on him,” Williams said. “We didn’t want to let him put the ball on the floor and get you underneath the basket.”
Williams finished with five blocks to go with his nine points and eight rebounds. Todd and Lampley each had 14 to lead the team in scoring, and Keiondre Jakes added 11.
In addition to Wiley’s 19, Jamal Johnson led all scorers with 20 points in the game. Justin Brown added 15.
Now, Central turns its attention to McGill-Toolen, which needed double-overtime to defeat Hoover on Thursday, in Saturday’s state championship game. The Red Devils are trying to win their first state championship in program history. The players said they have discussed trying to get a ring for their coach, Bobby Wright, who is yet to win one in his career.
“Yeah, we talk about it,” Todd said. “We do a lot. Want him to go ahead and get this ring.”
Wright discussed the opportunity after the game.
“It’s an awesome feeling just to know that in the latter part of my career, I have the opportunity to do this again,” he said. “I think this is something I can take out with me when I get on out of here. I know I’m not going to be here that much longer. Now that I am playing in the state championship game, it would be awfully sweet to go out with this.”
Central 63, Spain Park 61, OT
Tre Todd 14, Demarkus Lampley 14, Keiondre Jakes 11, Jermond Williams 10, Tionne Williams 9, Adrian Jackson 3, Japaris Vaughn 2.
Spain Park (61)
Jamal Johnson 20, Austin Wiley 19, Justin Brown 15, Larry Wooden 3, Bailey Defalco 2, Parker Boswell 2.
Records: Central, 32-1; Spain Park, 23-10. Next: Central, 6:45 p.m. ET Saturday vs. McGill-Toolen in Class 7A championship game; Spain Park, season over.