Despite trailing through most of the first half, Centennial’s playoff experience shined through Wednesday, as the top-seeded Eagles regrouped after the break and claimed a sectional championship after defeating sixth-seeded Wilde Lake in the 3A East section I finals.
“We just talked about, we didn’t play real well. We’re only down three having considered we didn’t have a good half for us… We might have a great chance to escape not a great half in a playoff game, so lets go out and take it,” said Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel after the 58-42 win. “The kids really responded with energy. I think it is an advantage to have been where we have been. Key guys have been there before and there are guys that are still apart of that, so we talked about trying to just find a way to… get what we wanted moving forward. The hope would be that it would work out and it did. I’m just proud of the kids.”
The Eagles converted on the opening basket, but from then on it was all Wilde Lake in the opening quarter. The Wildecats never surrended the lead again in the first half once Richard Samuels got the team in front, 4-2, at the 5:28 mark of the first quarter.
Wilde Lake led by as much as eight points through the period, but Centennial surged back, getting within three thanks to a Tom Brown buzzer beating three to end the quarter.
Wilde Lake continued its momentum in the following eight minutes, as it was led by Emmanuel Boateng’s play on the boards. His relentless work on the glass created several second- and third-chance opportunities for the Wildecats. He was credited for eight of Wilde Lake’s 13 points in the quarter.
“We thought that Wilde Lake did a great job of controlling the tempo with their half-court defense,” Hollwedel said. “We really talked about the fact that I felt like we didn’t execute against their zone the way we had wanted to. The focus was really on us, just trying to be us. And again, great credit to Wilde Lake for them to be able to set the tempo in the half court, which I think benefited them.”
The Eagles finished off the half strong, hitting a few timely buckets before the break. Elijah White made a nice play with about two minutes left, cleaning up his miss and taking it to the hole, converting on the bucket and getting the foul called. Centennial ended up cutting its deficit to 26-23 at halftime.
The Eagles then built on their momentum at the start of the third quarter, netting four unanswered points, gaining their first lead — 28-26 — since the opening minute of the game.
The Wildecats responded with a game-tying bucket by Kyle Ichrist, but Kaleb Addisu countered with a quick basket at the other end, giving Centennial back the lead.
The Eagles followed with an 8-2 run to end the quarter, pushing their cushion to 39-31 entering the final eight minutes.
“I think Centennial is a very experienced team, they weren’t going to lay down and they came out with a little bit more intensity and effort in the second half,” said Wilde Lake coach Deon Wingfield. “And our guys, we weren’t able to matchup with that physicality down in the stretch time there. That’s when the game got out of reach for us.”
The Eagles kept piling on their lead in the fourth, going up by as much as 13 points in the period.
The Wildecats kept fighting, though, but got into foul trouble, as they were in the double-bonus with more than four minutes left in the half. A big loss for them was Boateng, who was the catalyst for Wilde Lake all game. He collected his fifth and final foul with 3 minutes and 8 seconds remaining in the game on a controversial late call on a loose ball. With Boateng out, the Wildecats couldn’t muster enough offense down the stretch to rally for the win.
“We wanted to have a fast start, because we knew Centennial was going to play us as tough as a rock and once our big guys got in foul trouble it changed the momentum of the game. He’s a big piece of the puzzle and by him not being able to play so much and ultimately ended up fouling out, sort of hurt us,” Wingfield said. “It was a huge factor because we actually thought that he did a great job in the first half of getting the ball inside to him and once he was out of the equation we didn’t have that big presence inside, that offensive influence.”
The defending state champion Eagles calmly finished out the game and pulled away to get the 16-point win.
“I had faith in my team. We felt like to ourselves, we were playing so bad and we were only down by three at half, so we were like, if we play to our knowable capability, we’re able to win,” Addisu said. “I think our energy on defense and mostly executing. They play like a slow-tempo 3-2 (zone), so we really had to execute and it was kind of hard for us at first because we couldn’t really finish. But then when we went on, coach just told us that it was our type of game. We just had to be patient on offense and just tough it out and finish it.”
Addisu registered 12 points off the bench, while Brown finished with a game-high 16 points, with Elijah White following with 13 points on the night.
“I thought Kaleb Addisu coming off the bench in the first half, we started him in the second half. We thought he made a difference. I thought we got great minutes from our kids. We ended up playing 11, but it’s a matter of their preparation, their energy every day,” Hollwedel said. “Tonight we had some of the usual suspects. We had a little help off the bench led by Kaleb. I thought EJ Fowler (7 points) played one of his better games, but Tom (Brown) and Elijah (White) have been consistent down the stretch. It’s a team. Everybody tries to take Tom away, but the kids know that and Tom does a good job of picking his spots. He makes everybody else better. I think the whole unit played well, at least down the stretch.”
“Yeah, I actually do feel like this was one of my better games of the season so far,” Addisu said. “I was happy to do as much as I did. I try to (stay aggressive).”
The Wildecats end a fantastic run, which saw them knock out second-seeded Glenelg and third-seeded Long Reach to get to the sectional final game. Boateng finished as the teams leading scorer with 12 points, while Ichrist followed with 10 points in the outing.
“I’m going to tell them how proud I am of them,” Wingfield added. “We fought. We actually played well toward the end of the season and it’s something that we can actually build on. It’s a great group of guys that I’ve been able to coach this year and I know they are all hurting right now, but hey, we advanced to the third round of the sectional final, which is phenomenal.”
Centennial will travel to top-seeded Stephen Decatur in the regional semifinal round. The Seahawks defeated second-seeded Hammond, 70-68 on Wednesday in overtime.
“We just know that they score a lot, like 90-plus. We have to slow them down on defense a lot,” Addisu added. “I feel like it’s just a team thing honestly. I think if we are able to play as well as we can, I feel like we can beat anybody.”
Centennial 58, Wilde Lake 42 (3A East section I finals)
C (13-6, 17-7): Brown 16, White 13, Addisu 12, Fowler 7, Merkey 6, Fant 3, Williams 1.
WL (6-13, 8-17): Boateng 12, Ichrist 10, Stubblefield 9, Keys 7, Cantwell 4.
Half: 26-23 WL.