MOWEAQUA — Tracing the exact origin of Connor Heaton's love for the big moment, particularly in closing out close basketball games, isn't simple.
Heaton's Central A&M teammate Jacob Paradee goes back to a sixth-grade game against Mount Zion to pinpoint where it started. With four seconds left, Heaton was trapped at halfcourt and hit a turnaround, game-tying 3-point shot to force overtime.
Naturally, Heaton remembered that moment, but he tends to let his mind drift back to his freshman season in the Macon County Tournament against St. Teresa. He finished with 29 points in that game, which A&M lost, but he dazzled with layup after layup, put backs, 3-pointers and mid-range shots in the fourth quarter.
Time and again, Heaton embraced the big moment and delivered for a Central A&M team that made its third consecutive Class 1A super-sectional appearance. As a senior this season, Heaton averaged 21.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 3.4 steals and shot 59.4 percent from the field and is the Herald & Review Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year for the second time in three years. On Thursday he announced his commitment to play college basketball at Illinois Wesleyan University, a program that had extensively scouted him throughout the regular season and postseason.
“The biggest thing I learned was how much I liked the moment," Heaton said. "I’m not a shy kid. I think performing under the big lights has been a big part of my game. I like the pressure. It really fuels me and motivates me to play that much better and play that much harder in big games and big situations. That’s really what you play for and that’s a big part of this year."
Heaton has an expansive list of games he's had a big hand in closing out, even on a team that routinely won in routs.
There's last season's sectional championship game against Nokomis, when he scored six of eight points down the stretch to regain the lead and seal a berth in the super-sectional game. He closed out Altamont in this season's sectional semifinals with his defense and by attacking the rim. In the sectional championship against Effingham St. Anthony, he put the icing on the cake with back-to-back game-sealing dunks. The latter two performances came in front of members of the Wesleyan coaching staff at Casey-Westfield High School.
“The biggest part of it is not thinking the moment is too big and just staying calm," Heaton said. "As close as a game as it might be, you have to stay calm the whole time and realize what the defense is giving you and taking what they do give you, whether that’s me scoring or me making a pass an getting an assist or getting the bucket. It’s just staying calm and playing in the moment.
“I definitely think it's a maturity thing and something I grew into over the years. I just always had a knack for winning and trusting myself to make the right play. Once the years go by, you realize that you’re playing with a lot of other good players, too, and you’ve got to trust them to make the right play, too. I always know they’re going to be in the right spots."
He has the trust of his teammates to close out a game when it's needed. The trust has been formed for years — more than a decade of playing basketball with or against each other. The Raiders were rich with chemistry. Paradee said as the team broke some huddles late in close games, he prodded Heaton to close out the game.
"I’ll be like, ‘Heater, you’ve got to have the ball. This is your time,'" Paradee said. "We all knew coming to the end of the game that we had to get Heater the ball. He knows when to turn it on. I know when to tell him here and there, ‘Heater, this is the time. We’ve got to go.’ Then he jumps right on it and he’ll go crazy. As soon as he gets the ball, he’ll go straight to the hoop no matter who is in his way. You’ve see the acrobatic layup he makes. It’s insane."
A&M coach Rob Smith has seen Heaton run the gamut of different performances from monster statistical games to being the key to sealing out big wins. Some games, though, those performances didn't jump off the court.
At times, an assistant would tell Smith on the way to the locker room at halftime that Heaton was having a quiet game. The scorebook, though, disagreed. "I would say, 'He has 20 points at halftime,'" Smith recalled.
“Being able to take over a game sometimes and put up big numbers and you didn’t think they were big numbers, if that makes sense," Smith said. "When you’re able to do those sorts of things. That’s probably a testament and you can look up and say, ‘Huh, he had 24 and 12 tonight?' You really didn’t notice it.’"
When the close games came down to the wire, Heaton made everyone take notice.
PHOTOS: Central A&M's Connor Heaton
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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