SHELBYVILLE — While looking at the upcoming schedule last week, Central A&M boys basketball coach Rob Smith came to a realization.
If things go as planned, the Raiders could have a big game every Friday for six consecutive Fridays. It started last week with a Central Illinois Conference Tournament win over Warrensburg-Latham.
Next up was clinching at least a share of the Central Illinois Conference on Friday against Shelbyville. The Raiders accomplished that with a 57-43 over the Rams in Shelbyville.
“It means a lot," junior Connor Heaton said. "Shelbyville has a great record and they played a great game. That’s a big win against a great team. Malcolm (Miller), he’s a great player. That win means a lot and giving us a win of the conference title is the icing on the cake."
Next week, the Raiders (24-3, 6-0) can win the conference outright against Warrensburg at home. The following Friday would be the regional championship, then the sectional championship.
The sixth Friday would be at Carver Arena in Peoria in the Class 1A state semifinals, but that's a goal so lofty Smith is hesitant to mention it — yet.
Before any of the Fridays could continue, Central A&M had to beat Shelbyville (21-4, 5-1) and the school's all-time leading scorer Malcolm Miller. The Raiders did that and clinched their first share of the Central Illinois Conference in school history, and the first share of any conference since sharing the Big Okaw Conference in 2012.
Heaton scored 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, Griffin Andricks had 13 points and nine rebounds and Jacob Parade had eight points for the Raiders.
“I was really proud with all our kids," Smith said. "They all stepped up and played well and played together."
A&M raced out to an 18-5 lead after the first quarter behind seven of Heaton's 19 points. All except nine of the Raiders' 57 points came on two-point shot attempts for from the free-throw line.
"Our game plan was: Our size advantage is huge against them," Heaton said. "If we pound it in the paint and get easy short buckets, that’s our game plan right there."
But the Miller-led Rams didn't fold. Miller, in his last regular season game in Shelbyville, scored 23 points to go with nine from Braden Nichols and six from Leo Logue. The Rams got within six at halftime and got as close as two points in the third quarter and three points early in the fourth quarter before A&M spread it out, milked the clock and continued attacking the rim.
“We had to shoot well and we didn’t," said Shelbyville coach Bob Herdes, who will retire at the end of the postseason. "We had to shoot it extremely well and we didn’t do that. We knew coming in we had to shoot well."
The gym was packed wall-to-wall with fans, giving A&M a look at the atmosphere ahead of it in the postseason. It's exactly what Andricks said the Raiders needed to see.
“This was insane," Andricks said. "This game was packed and it was really good for us. We’ve got to get used to this. We have to get used to hostile environments on home floors and this was a perfect example."
Heaton and Paradee, in particular, got through the Shelbyville defense and straight to the hoop in the fourth quarter. If they wanted a good look at a layup, they got it, if they wanted to pass it out, Connor Hutchins was waiting. He scored six of his eight points in the fourth quarter.
“Everyone talks how Heaton is a great player and so is Andricks, but that Paradee kid just kills you," Herdes said. "It’s hard to stay in front of him. We didn’t shoot it well and we missed a couple rebounds we should have got. I’m proud of the kids. They played hard, but it just didn’t happen."
Miller scored all 23 of his points after the first quarter. He scored nine in the second, six in the third and eight in the fourth to keep the Rams afloat. It was his final regular season home game before the Rams host regionals. He's the school's all-time leading scorer.
“He’s a better kid than he is player and he’s a great player," Herdes said. "One of the best basketball players to ever come through Shelbyville. I don’t know if everyone realizes it or not, but they’re watching a kid who can do so many things and does so much. He works so hard and puts so much effort into it."
For the Raiders, it was the second of what they hope is six consecutive Fridays that they are playing, with the stakes rising each week.
“We’re just going one Friday at a time and checking off the list each Friday," Andricks said.