Centennial boys basketball defeated C. Milton Wright Thursday night at XFINITY Center in College Park in the 3A semifinals to advance to the championship game. (Brent Kennedy/Howard County Times video)
Centennial senior Chad Strothers said he could immediately feel the nerves kick in when he stepped onto the floor at the University of Maryland's Xfinity Center on Thursday for the team's 3A state semifinal match-up against C. Milton Wright.
It took less than three minutes of game action, however, for all those feelings to completely disappear.
Centennial (24-2) opened the game on a 7-2 run, including an early three by Strothers (19 points), and the team never looked back on the way to a convincing 75-61 victory over the Mustangs. The win advances the Eagles to face Westlake, a 58-43 winner over Linganore in the other 3A semifinal, for the state championship at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
"I was kind of nervous at first going out, it's a huge intimidating stadium. But once you start shooting around and getting comfortable — we had the community behind us — we started to relax," Strothers said. "I started to get into the flow. The rhythm came and it just felt good."
Centennial, which ended up having four guys — Strothers, Isaiah White (19 points), Elijah White (10) and Connor Clemens (10) — score in double figures, played what coach Chad Hollwedel called "quite possibly the best opening half" of its season.
The Eagles shot over 60 percent from the floor in the first 16 minutes and held C. Milton Wright's top two guys — Michael Stefanides and Corey Bays — to a combined four points on the way to a double-digit advantage.
"I have no idea if it's the highest shooting percentage we've had this season, but I know it's up there. And it wasn't just all in the paint, either," Hollwedel said. "It was a good balance and I thought it had a lot to do with shot selection and the kids feeling confident. I could tell that they looked confident in warm-ups and we were able to get those nerves out early."
For C. Milton Wright (22-2), which was making the program's first appearance in the state final four, it took a little while to settle in. And, with Centennial clicking on all cylinders, it led to the Mustangs trailing by 10 just over 10 minutes in, 24-14.
"We've never had anybody shoot 60 percent against us in a half ever. And they shot 60 percent in the first half and then made their first three shots in the second to push them over 70," said Jon Stefanides, whose team's only loss this season prior to Thursday was a two-point setback against John Carroll in late January. "Obviously they are really good shooters, but we talked about the poor close outs and the kind of not getting to where we were supposed to be."
By the end of the first half, the Eagles lead was up to 12, 36-24.
Then, courtesy of a 15-6 spurt to begin the third quarter behind Isaiah White and Clemens, Centennial had opened up its largest lead of the night, 51-30.
"It starts for us on the defensive end, there's no doubt," Hollwedel said. "When we play with the defensive energy and we get stops, it leads to run outs and it gets us started."
C. Milton Wright did finally find some life late in the third quarter and at the beginning of the fourth behind Bays getting on track and Kyle Harkins knocking down a couple big shots. The Mustangs, following two foul shot by Bays (team-high 21 points), were within 10 points with 3:57 left.
But before things got any closer, Elijah White stepped up and delivered the knockout blow. The sophomore guard got a lay-up and then threw down a transition dunk within a span of 40 seconds to spark a 10-3 run to put the game away.
Howard County Times: Top stories Newsletter
Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.
"Closing out and forcing them into quick shots after they got hot, then they started missing a couple and we were getting on the break because they were pressing us," Elijah White said. "(We were able to) execute out press break."
Centennial is now back in the state championship game for the first time since 2011 and will be trying to win the first title in program history. Hollwedel says the approach to the contest against Westlake, though, isn't going to change from what it has been all season.
Centennial 75, C. Milton Wright 61
C (24-2): Strothers 19, I. White 19, Clemens 10, E. White 10, Brown 6, Geist 6, Merkey 2, Wilson 2, An 1.
CMW (22-2): Bays 21, Harkins 16, Brown 9, Stefanides 4, Lorenzo 3, Worthington 3, Cuffee 2, Sampson 2, Walter 1.