During the final month of the season, Centennial earned itself the right to play at home as the top seed in Section I of the 3A East region courtesy of eight straight victories.
On Wednesday night against visiting Mt. Hebron in the region semifinals, locked in a back-and-forth game through three quarters, that home crowd that had filled the gym 90 minutes before tip off may have provided just the boost the Eagles needed to emerge victorious.
Centennial outscored Mt. Hebron 19-3 over the final eight minutes of the game, igniting the near-capacity crowd into more and more of a frenzy with each passing basket on the way to a 57-42 victory. The Eagles advance to face Stephen Decatur for the regional championship on Friday evening.
“There is no doubt that the run we went on to end the regular season in order to get this game at home, being able to play here in front of our fans, made a difference tonight,” Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel said. “There’s an energy in this place, you can feel it. And once we got going, we seemed to feed off that energy the rest of the way.”
Centennial (16-8) was trailing by a point heading to the fourth quarter following a 3—pointer by Mt. Hebron (13-11) senior Alex Nazaire to close the third period. But the Eagles opened the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run that included 3-pointers from Sean Taylor (10 points) and Corey Eudell (12) to go ahead by eight, 47-39.
By the time, Mt. Hebron finally scored its first field goal of the last quarter there was only 1:41 left on the clock and there was no slowing down Centennial’s momentum.
In the closing minutes, Hayden Ford (9 points) added a pair of emphatic dunks in transition to put an exclamation point on the win.
Overall, the Eagles ended up scoring more than half their points on fast breaks.
“That’s an every game key [for us], pushing the ball in transition, because as a whole I don’t think any team can run with us,” Eudell said. “So that’s all that we look to do is push.”
Andrew Hohmann ended up leading the offense for Centennial with 15 points, giving the team four players with nine or more points.
On the other side, Mt. Hebron’s Brandon Prox ended up scoring a game-high 20 points — all coming in the first three quarters. The Vikings’ junior guard was plagued with foul trouble the entire second half, sitting on the bench for several minutes, and ended up fouling out in the late stages of the fourth quarter.
In his absence, Mt. Hebron simply was unable to knock down the shots in crunch time that had been falling early on.
“Honestly, I thought that we got the shots we wanted. They just didn’t drop in that fourth quarter, and those are shots that have dropped for us throughout the course of the year,” Mt. Hebron coach Mike Linsenmeyer said. “We had some foul trouble, but we still had good looks. Bottom line, you have to give it to Centennial for playing hard and making plays at the end.”
Mt. Hebron was the one ahead during most of the first half. Prox hit a trio of 3-pointers in the opening 11 minutes to help stake his team to a 19-14 advantage.
But Centennial found life late in the opening half behind a 9-0 surge that included seven points from Hohmann. That run helped the Eagles take a 25-22 lead into halftime.
Out of the break, Mt. Hebron put together a 7-0 run to retake the lead. Then Centennial answered with its own 8-0 run to set the stage for a third quarter that ended up featuring seven lead changes.
For as close as things were up until that point, though, the fourth quarter ended up being an entirely different story. Centennial never trailed again after Taylor’s 3-pointer to open the period.
Linsenmeyer said the season-ending loss shouldn’t take away from what his team accomplished after a 4-8 start to the year.
“I just told the kids, this is by far the most improved team I’ve ever coached in my 32 varsity seasons between soccer and basketball,” he said. “It speaks to their commitment to the program and it’s truly been a joy working with them every day.”
As for Centennial, the team now gets another shot at a Stephen Decatur program that ended the Eagles’ season in the regional finals two years ago.
“We know what it’s like to go down there, so we are going to have to continue to be at our best. That means continuing to defend, valuing offensive possessions and playing within ourselves,” Hollwedel said. “You get to this point and it comes down to being able to shut out all those outside influences and just focus on playing basketball one possession and one stop at a time.”
Centennial 57, Mt. Hebron 42 (3A East Section I Final)
C (16-8): Hohmann 15, Eudell 12, Taylor 10, Ford 9, Hill 5, Addisu 4, Merkey 2.
MH (13-11): Prox 20, Nazaire 9, Ichrist 5, Carguilo 4, Coleman 2, Kinloch 2.
Half: 25-22 C.