CLINTON – Jeff Miller grew nervous when he learned Charleston’s draw in its opening regional game.
Instead of seeing a new team as he preferred, the Charleston girls basketball team was matched up against fellow Apollo Conference member Mahomet-Seymour, who it had played and blown out twice earlier in the year. The teams met up just 13 days ago.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row, I don’t care who it is,” Miller said. “We play better, it seems to me, against teams we don’t normally see. They’re not used to what we do.”
He was patently correct. Charleston defeated Mahomet-Seymour in Tuesday’s regional semifinal at Clinton, but this time, the Trojans endured a dragged-out slugfest and a slow start that eventually led to a 51-43 victory – their 28th straight – and a Thursday regional final meeting with Champaign Central. Central beat Urbana 68-54 in the other semifinal.
“We played tonight like we spent an hour and a half on the bus,” Miller said. “It’s not an excuse, but it was a problem.”
The game had little rhythm and plentiful turnovers. Charleston committed 11 first half turnovers, its average for an entire game. The teams combined for 16 first-quarter points. The technical difficulties that caused the gym’s microphone to produce loud static when the public address announcer spoke into it fit the night well.
“They certainly outplayed us in the first half,” Miller said.
Charleston’s 2-1-2 zone, though, helped it survive a poor offensive start and prevent a large deficit. The Trojans swarmed the ball and trapped aggressively, forcing live-ball turnovers and panicked passes into the arms of defenders or over another offensive player’s head. They allowed only three points in the first 6:30 of the second half.
“We try to speed teams up and force them to make the mistakes,” Miller said. “We want to make them as uncomfortable as possible with the basketball. I thought we did that, especially in the third and fourth quarter, and sped them up well.”
Mahomet-Seymour’s offense scored most of its points in the first half off free throws or second-chance points. The Bulldogs grabbed offensive rebounds with ease and even had one possession with four shots. Without those, Charleston largely locked down their zone offense.
The Trojans’ offense woke up late in the second quarter. Shae Littleford scored two go-ahead baskets to answer a pair of Mahomet-Seymour scores. Regan Bollant then made a 3-pointer that gave Charleston a four-point lead with just over a minute left until halftime. All told, Bollant connected for five triples and scored 15 points. Littleford had a team-high 18 points.
Charleston outscored Mahomet-Seymour 14-7 in the third quarter and took a 38-31 lead with 5:55 left on a Littleford mid-range jumper. It shrank back down to three points, though, on Makayla Rosenbery’s 3-pointer with 5:55 left.
Littleford often provides Charleston’s responses to opponent runs. This time, Elizabeth Buescher raised her hand. She was scoreless heading into the fourth quarter, but drilled a corner 3-pointer after catching a pass from her sister, Hannah, to bump Charleston’s lead back to eight points with 3:49 left. One possession later, off a Mahomet-Seymour turnover, she drew a foul on a layup and converted the 3-point play.
“She’s got the green light,” Miller said. “And her and Regan’s length gives offenses a big problem. We get a lot of deflections out of our traps.”
Littleford followed Buescher’s six straight points with two of her own. It capped an 8-0 run that gave Charleston a 49-38 lead with 2:15 left.
Mahomet-Seymour began fouling with about 90 seconds remaining and trailing by nine. Littleford made two free throws, though, that effectively ended the Bulldogs’ chances.