On the season's biggest stage, Wilde Lake has found its winning formula.
Locked in a grind-it-out, low-scoring affair for the second straight game in the 3A East region playoffs, the Wildecats once again turned to the little things — free throws, rebounds and defense — to keep their season alive.
Up against Centennial Thursday night, Wilde Lake jumped ahead early and then stayed the course late to earn a 48-43 victory that secures the program a chance to play for its first region championship since 1994 on Saturday against Stephen Decatur.
"The message tonight was that we can bend a little bit, but we just can't break … no matter what happens we had to just stay the course," Wilde Lake coach Deon Wingfield said. "That's a championship program over there, so we knew they were going to make their runs. We've seen them first hand against Centennial over the years.
"Tonight was all about being mentally tough and these guys, that's exactly what they were. They delivered with their backs against the wall."
Wilde Lake (17-8), which had lost in the same regional semifinal round against Centennial (17-8) last winter, got some redemption this time around courtesy of a clutch finish that included making 7-8 free throws in the final 45 seconds.
Nick David, a senior who finished with eight points and made three of those foul shots late, said confidence went a long way.
"We practice free throws for a lot of time every day, so that when it comes to big moments just like this, it's just like practice," David said. "Once I knocked down my first two, it was like a ball rolling. The next player knocked down the next two with all the confidence and it just got easier from there."
Overall, Wilde Lake was led once again by its lead duo of Trea Keys (11 points) and Marquis Bullett (10 points and 9 rebounds). But just as importantly, the team's defense was once again in lockdown mode — holding its fifth straight opponent under 50 points.
"That's become our identity these last few weeks, everything has been building from our defense. We've really committed ourselves to executing on that end of the floor," said Wingfield, whose team had held just four of its first 19 opponents under 50 points.
Still, even with Wilde Lake going on a 13-2 run to close the first quarter on its way to grabbing a double-digit lead that it never lost, Centennial had every opportunity down the stretch to potentially complete its second huge comeback in a row.
The Eagles had erased a double-digit deficit on its way to beating Long Reach in the region quarterfinals on Tuesday, and against Wilde Lake again found itself needing to dig itself out of a big hole. Following a put-back by Bullett with 5:35 left in the second quarter, the Wildecats held a 23-12 lead.
That, however, is when Centennial began chipping away. Elijah White (10 points) and Andrew Hohmann (12) each started to heat up, helping the Eagles close to within five points, 28-23, at the half.
By the end of the third quarter, it was a three-point game, 35-32. And after a lengthy scoreless stretch for both squads early in the fourth quarter, Hohmann converted a layup with 5:16 left in regulation to get Centennial as close as one point, 35-34.
In the end, the Eagles simply couldn't ever get over the hump. Turnovers, missed shots and going 5-12 from the foul line on the evening were all contributing factors.
"Down the stretch, I thought Wilde Lake just executed better than we did. They made shots, made free throws and took care of the ball," Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel said. "We just had a few too many empty possessions in the fourth quarter and in a game of this magnitude that is this tight, every little thing matters."
Nursing a three-point lead in the final minute, David, Tyrell Barnes (6 points) and Keys all made free throws to keep Centennial at an arms length.
Looking ahead, Wilde Lake will travel to play a Stephen Decatur team that defeated Hammond 64-37 Thursday in the other 3A East region semifinal. The game is scheduled for a 5 p.m. tip.
Wingfield says he knows it will be a tall task going up against a defending region-champion Seahawks' team that has lost just once this winter, but he's excited for the challenge.
"We've been fortunate enough to have now played three away games already in these playoffs, so we've gotten used to playing in other people's gyms. And tonight it was a tough crowd, something we are going to see again I know on Saturday against Stephen Decatur," he said. "Bottom line is that we just have to stay mentally tough. This was the goal, to get to this game with a chance to get to the Xfinity Center. Now that we're here, hopefully we can continue to play as a team and keep this going.'
Wilde Lake 48, Centennial 43
WL (17-8): Keys 11, Bullett 10, David 8, Joseph 7, Barnes 6, Van Tassell 4, Greene 2.
C (17-8): Hohmann 12, White 10, Eudell 6, Taylor 5, Addisu 4, Fant 2, Ford 2, Williams 2.
Half: 28-23 WL.