RANTOUL — Social media has a way of making competitive banter — trash talk, to some — much easier to hear heading into an important athletic showcase.
High school kids know this as well as anyone. The latest example transpired ahead of Tuesday night’s Class 3A Rantoul Regional boys’ basketball semifinal game between second-seeded Mahomet-Seymour and sixth-seeded Champaign Central.
“There was a lot of energy coming into the game,” Bulldogs senior Grant Coleman said, “and a lot of stuff being said by their student section.”
The easiest way to block out such distractions? Lead on the scoreboard when the fourth-quarter clock strikes all zeros.
Coleman deposited 21 points and hauled in a critical offensive rebound during the last minute of regulation, helping M-S to a 52-49 victory as the program earned a spot in Friday’s regional championship game.
“It felt good to come in here and get the win,” said Coleman, a Milwaukee signee. “We had a great game plan to shut down and guard well, and we just executed that perfectly.”
Cole Lener and Braden Finch each added 10 points for the Bulldogs (21-10) while drawing two of the toughest defensive assignments the Maroons (16-16) had to offer.
Those all-around efforts from Lener and Finch, in supporting Coleman, helped M-S extend its win streak to 10 in a win-or-go home situation.
“(Central has) got a lot of weapons, so you’ve kind of got to pick your poison a little bit,” M-S coach Ryan Bosch said. “But our kids stepped up down the stretch and made plays. ... I was really pleased with our kids’ grit.”
That especially reared its head over the game’s final three minutes.
After a Judd Wagner layup pulled the Maroons within two points at 43-41, the Bulldogs’ trio of Finch, Lener and Coleman converted one basket apiece to rebuild the M-S edge to eight at 49-41.
Central got as close as three on two separate occasions after this stretch and could have made things even more interesting had the Maroons come down with a loose ball after Lener missed a free throw with 40.8 seconds left and the Bulldogs in front 51-46.
Instead, it was Coleman who tracked it into the far corner, and the Bulldogs were able to hang on from there.
“Just some of the ... rebounds we got down the stretch I was probably the most proud of,” Bosch said, “because (Central is) such a strong team on the glass.”
The Maroons struggled to find offensive staying power all night and attempted 14 free throws to M-S’s 29. Khailieo Terry compiled 15 points, though he carried just two field goals into the fourth period, and recent returnee Isaiah Jackson notched 11 points for Central.
“They did a nice job keeping us out of the paint early,” Maroons coach Jeff Finke said. “We probably missed 12, 15 layups in the first half.”
It was a far cry from Central piling up the points about 24 hours prior, in a 90-35 regional quarterfinal victory versus Rantoul.
“That’s kind of been our whole season,” Finke said. “If we shoot the ball pretty well, we’re in every game. When we don’t shoot it well, it’s hard to compete. There’s no consolation prize when you’re in the regional, but to only lose by three when you look at the stats and the book, I’m not sure I know how (we did).”
Lener was assigned to guard the Maroons’ other big scoring option, Pryce Punkay. Central’s single-season three-point shooting record holder was kept without such a bucket until a desperation heave with less than one second to play, and he finished with nine points. That was after he compiled 27 points during Monday’s win against Rantoul.
“Cole Lener’s job on Pryce Punkay (on Tuesday) was just special,” Bosch said. “Pryce is a phenomenal basketball player, and for (Lener) to guard him as well as he did after what Pryce did (Monday), I thought it was really exceptional for us.”
Paired with the 6-foot-2 Finch buzzing around the 6-4 Terry, M-S was able to force its opponent into costly droughts. The biggest happened when the Maroons went without any sort of basket for the first 4 minutes, 47 seconds of the second quarter.
“I don’t know that I’d single out any one person (defensively) taking over the game,” Finke said. “They had a better team (Tuesday) than we did.”
But, as Finke noted, Central was on the doorstep of pulling a playoff upset.
“We still had to buckle down and play good defense and take care of the ball,” Coleman said. “I was always confident that we were going to come through.”
The Bulldogs possessing the regional’s best seed comes with the added benefit of an extra day’s rest and preparation time.
While third-seeded Urbana (16-14) and fifth-seeded Centennial (17-13) battle it out in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. semifinal game, Bosch and his staff can garner valuable information on their next foe while the Bulldogs take a breather before Friday’s 7 p.m. tip.
Important not only because of the magnitude of Friday’s game, but also because M-S has prior history with both potential foes — losing 69-55 to the Chargers on the first night of the season on Nov. 25 and routing the Tigers 76-52 on Feb. 11.
“You’ve got to prepare for both because I can’t tell you one way or the other which way that game’s going to go,” Bosch said. “Just make it about us and stick to our identity, and prepare for what we want to do and let the opponent turn out to be who it is.”