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NOKOMIS -- Ryan Dooley nearly put a crater in the hardwood.

With time winding down in the third quarter, Dooley launched an off-balanced 3-pointer well behind the line that crashed through as the buzzer sounded.

She slammed her foot down in excitement, hugged an equally excited Mikah Maples, and kept that energy going into the fourth.

A&M never lost momentum, and won the Class 1A Nokomis Sectional 54-31.

"Yeah, it felt really good. I knew as soon as I touched, I thought, this has to go in," Dooley said. "I just had that feeling as soon as I let it go."

It came after a woeful first 20 minutes of offense for Central A&M. Effingham St. Anthony's ball pressure forced several bad passes and A&M couldn't hit many jumpers.

The Bulldogs kept hanging around, but Ryan Dooley found an opening on the baseline midway through the third quarter. She stuck the tough layup, extending A&M's lead to eight.

Then Abigail Hilton found a friendly bounce from the top of the backboard that sent another jumper through before Dooley found another opening for a second layup.

Then came Dooley's impressive 3.

"You gotta think that's a pretty good sign," Tom Dooley said.

For Ryan Dooley and this group of seniors, there's always been a next year awaiting if A&M (30-1) somehow was tripped up along the way.

That's wiped away this year, and as St. Anthony stayed with the Raiders for 21 minutes, Dooley kicked it into high gear.

"Like Taylor (Jordan) said last year -- for state she said she was so determined," Dooley said. "I was like, I want to be there, and I really felt determined tonight. I just want to lead this team with the other four seniors and know we left it all out on the court."

"It's incredible," Hilton added, "being able to know we're able to forward. For us seniors, we're not ready to give it up yet. We want to play as much as we can."

The trio of Dooley (23 points), Mikah Maples (12) and Hilton (7) scored all but 12 of A&M's points. Dooley came alive in the second half, scoring 18 of her points through dribble-drives and a 5-for-6 showing at the line.

"Just like any team, you have to feel your way into the game." Central A&M coach Tom Dooley said. "I thought the first half we struggled, but St. Anthony's a good team. I thought we really came out the second half defensively -- I thought we had a good defensive first half, but we combined offense and defense in the third quarter."

In the first half, St. Anthony led during huge chunks of time. The high point was an 18-14 lead with 3:35 left in the second quarter, but Emma Meyer and Taryn Sams combined to push the Raiders ahead by halftime.

Bulldogs' freshman Abby Weis scored a team-high nine points, but her ability to control the ball and run the offense was just as valuable. She staved off the Raiders' usually prolific and aggressive defense by not pressing her luck with the passing lanes.

St. Anthony's size also gave A&M fits early on, but the Raiders started creating space in the second half. It wasn't until a minute into the fourth quarter where the patented pick and roll with Dooley and Hilton cropped up.

"Yeah, they collapsed inside on us hard, because they saw us play Altamont," Ryan Dooley said. "They knew our game. It was hard to get in there. But that was just a really good roll by Abigail."

It's the third straight sectional title for Central A&M, and keeps the dream of three straight trips to state alive. There's certainly going to be bigger challenges, literally, as the postseason rolls along.

By now, though, A&M's used to that.

"What we work on with bigs is we have to pass out of it, but it's still a work in progress," Tom Dooley said. "We just got to put four quarters together, and hopefully that's to come Monday night."

Aren's take

Scary start

The height of stomach-turning for Raiders' fans probably came at the end of the first quarter.

St. Anthony had played A&M's game just as well to that point, and after Weis found Abbie Schmidt inside for a bucket late just before Weis stole the ball and scored at the buzzer, it was a forceful first punch.

But St. Anthony's couldn't connect on enough shots inside the paint to stay with A&M.

Playing up

Central A&M's never had the size that most teams who frequent state have. Hilton's just 5-foot-10, but she's learned how to play against bigger posts, even at the toughest levels.

"Definitely helps being able to go against someone who's a little bit taller and mentally preparing for the games to come," Hilton said. "We always work in practice acting like there is someone taller. Coach (Todd) Rork, he's over six-foot and he'll help us in practice and he's trying to block our shot."

Hidden gem

Because she's a guard, it's that much more impressive Ryan Dooley has 27 blocks on the season -- she had her latest on Thursday.

She can close out quickly, and her leaping ability catches shooters by surprise.

Up next

Central A&M travels to Springfield to take on Brimfield at UIS. Brimfield beat Liberty, which was ranked in the latest AP poll, 53-44.

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adow@herald-review.com|(217) 421-6978

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for the Herald & Review.

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