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By MATT DANIELS
For the Rantoul Press
CHAMPAIGN — It was a long time coming. Fifteen years in fact.
Yes, the Rantoul Township High School boys basketball team won a regional championship two seasons ago. Advanced all the way to the sectional championship game. Came within two wins of playing in the state semifinals at Carver Arena.
But the list of opponents they faced — Teutopolis in the sectional championship game, Paris in the sectional semifinal game, St. Joseph-Ogden in the regional championship game and Westville in the regional semifinal game — during the program’s 2011 Class 2A postseason run are better classified as small schools. RTHS has found it bordering between the small-school and big-school label in the past two decades with a declining enrollment. Monday night’s 47-42 win against Champaign Central in a Class 3A Champaign Centennial Regional quarterfinal game, however, broke a long losing streak in the postseason against the larger schools.
Since the Illinois High School Association expanded boys basketball into a four-class season with the start of the 2008 postseason, the Eagles were 0-4. In the nine years before class expansion took hold, RTHS went 0-9 since it defeated Urbana 55-50 in a 1998 regional semifinal game.
“Is that right?” RTHS head coach Brett Frerichs said with a laugh. “It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. It means a lot to win on the road and beat a Champaign school in Champaign.”
RTHS junior guard Johnny Jones expressed similar sentiments.
“We came into the game knowing that everybody thought we were going to lose,” he said. “It feels good. Everybody counts us as the underdog. We just want everybody to know we can play with them.”
How well the Eagles (12-16) would fare against Champaign’s other big school came after press time. The win against the fifth-seeded Maroons (5-19) advanced No. 4 RTHS into a regional semifinal game on Tuesday night against top seed Centennial (19-8). A win there and the Eagles would advance to a regional championship game at 7:30 p.m. Friday against either No. 2 Urbana or No. 3 Mahomet-Seymour. The Tigers and Bulldogs are slated to play at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the second regional semifinal game to determine the final regional championship game participant who will play for a right to move on to a Mt. Zion Sectional semifinal game next Tuesday.
Jones led all scorers with 18 points Monday and pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds to complete a double-double. He tallied 14 of those points in the first half, including a buzzer-beating 22-footer just to the right of the top of the key to give RTHS a 25-16 lead into the locker room.
“I knew they were expecting me to drive,” Jones said. “I just felt it in my hand that I was going to make it, so I put it up.”
RTHS — which had lost five of its last six regular season games and ended a three-game losing streak with Monday’s victory — bumped its lead to 39-25 with 50 seconds left in the third quarter when senior forward Greg Morrow (six points, eight rebounds) capped a four-point personal run with a baseline floater.
Besides Morrow, senior forward Cord Church (six points) came up with a timely bucket in the second half. Central had trimmed its deficit to 43-38 with a layup by Dominique Phillips and less than three minutes to play. With the Maroons increasing their pressure that forced RTHS into eight turnovers in the fourth quarter, junior guard Josh Oliveras caught the ball on the left side just inside the halfcourt line. He threaded a two-handed chest pass to the right block, where Church made the layup to give the Eagles a 45-38 lead with 1:40 left in the game.
“Greg and Cord showed some senior leadership that, honestly, we’ve been lacking all year,” Frerichs said. “Those were some big momentum stoppers on their layups inside.”
RTHS junior guard Talon Hardin added seven points and seven rebounds while junior guard Tanner McLain had six points and four rebounds on a night when offensive highlights were few and far between for both teams. RTHS only shot 20-of-57 (35 percent) from the field and only made 4-of-9 (44 percent) at the free throw line, including five straight misses in the fourth quarter that would have benefitted the Eagles. Jones took a third of the Eagles’ shots, making 6-of-19, but was 2-of-3 from three-point range.
“He’s a good player and was the best player on the floor,” Central coach Scott Davis said. “He hit the long three. That’s what we’ve lacked all year. We just don’t have anybody who can shoot it. When you’ve got a kid that can hit the jump shot and has confidence with the jump shot, it makes a lot of a difference.”
Central struggled mightily shooting the ball. The Maroons were 18-of-74 (24 percent) from the field, including 3-of-22 (14 percent) from beyond the arc. The Eagles had no answer for Central forward Xavier Martin (16 points, 15 rebounds), which helped the Maroons hold a 52-42 edge in rebounding, but Central never led in a game lacking on aesthetics, although it’s a win the Eagles and their faithful will take. Especially for historic purposes.
“We played smart, fundamental defense,” Frerichs said of an area he thought at times the Eagles didn’t show during stretches of the regular season. “They were quicker than us at certain positions, so we felt we needed to pack it in and take our chances with them shooting from the outside. We got lucky they weren’t hitting.”