BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Central-Southeastern girls basketball coach Matt Long referred to top-seeded Paris as “a monster.”
Consider his squad the beast slayers then.
The Panthers completed a remarkable run to the State Farm Holiday Classic championship Friday afternoon, making 5 of 6 free throws in the final 18.2 seconds to hand the Tigers their first loss of the season with a 36-32 victory at the Shirk Center on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus.
Seventh-seeded Central-Southeastern beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds to earn the title.
“I haven’t been prouder of a group of kids in my life for what they did, not only today but this entire week,” Long said.
The elation was obvious in all of them.
“Pretty excited,” Long said. “Very happy. Well deserved. They deserve it.”
They fought for it.
“It shows a toughness,” Long said. “They brought their basketball maturity and IQ to a higher level today, which we needed to do. I think they looked by us a little, which is not our fault. We went out and did what we had to do to win it.”
That was take control from the outset.
Senior guard Abbey McMillen, who set the program’s single-game 3-point record last season, made three consecutive 3-pointers to give the Panthers a 9-2 lead out of the gate.
“It was 9-2 about as quick as you can blink,” Long said.
C-SE led 11-5 at the end of the first quarter.
“We didn’t tell the kids this, but I told my staff it was crucial we had a great start the first four minutes or we could be out of the ballgame,” Long said. “If we came out and something bad went wrong, it could be over. The girls came out and stepped up and didn’t let that happen.”
Paris trimmed the deficit to 16-15 by halftime and took a 25-23 lead to the fourth quarter after Kaitlyn Coombes buried a 19-footer with two seconds remaining in the third quarter.
C-SE trailed 26-23 before Amanda Stephens scored in the post and Lauren Miller followed with a 3-pointer with 5:15 remaining to give the Panthers a 28-26 lead. The Panthers held the Tigers scoreless for nearly six minutes, going up 31-26 after Miller split a pair of free throws with 44.9 seconds left.
Miller and Stephens combined to make 5 of 6 free throws in the final 18.2 seconds to finish off the championship. Stephens led C-SE with 13 points, while Miller had eight.
“We were taking a little more focus when we stepped to the line than we did earlier in the year,” Long said.
Central-Southeastern’s Abbey McMillen, left, and Tori Fessler | Photo courtesy Clark Brooks, PhotoNews MediaCentral-Southeastern’s Amanda Stephens | Photo courtesy Clark Brooks, PhotoNews MediaCentral-Southeastern’s Tori Fessler, left, and Brilyn Lantz | Photo courtesy Clark Brooks, PhotoNews MediaCentral-Southeastern’s Lauren Miller | Photo courtesy Clark Brooks, PhotoNews MediaCentral-Southeastern’s Abbey McMillen | Photo courtesy Clark Brooks, PhotoNews Media