ALTAMONT — Like a prized fighter after a big knockout, Connor Heaton got his hands on the Class 1A Altamont Sectional plaque, face red with exhaust, and lifted it over his head for everyone to see.
Central A&M withstood one of the biggest punches of the season from Nokomis and gathered itself to take control down the stretch for a 63-57 win on Friday night for its 20th straight win and second straight sectional title.
With A&M (31-3) trailing by two points, 57-55, with 1:48 left in the game, Heaton, the reigning H&R Area Player of the Year, took over. He burst through the lane for layups through traffic, converted from the free-throw line and scored six of the team's eight points on his way to 22 points and nine rebounds.
The Raiders will play at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Class 1A Carbondale (SIU) Super-sectional against Sesser-Valier.
“We have weapons all over our team," said Heaton, who re-separated his shoulder Wednesday night. "Any of the five guys out there can make a shot. I just decided, I’m going to do whatever I can to help my team win. If that was taking it to the basket, passing the ball or making free throws, I was going to do it."
It was hardly just Heaton. Brycen Burgener scored 14 points off the bench for Central A&M to go with 11 points from Griffin Andricks, seven from Jacob Paradee and nine from Austin Sloan.
But when the time is winding down, the Raiders know that Heaton and Paradee have it in their DNA to take control of the game — it's been like that since second grade.
“With Connor and Jacob, when we get in those situations, it’s always been like, ‘We’re not going to lose,'" Burgener said. "They’re going to get us there. That’s how it’s always felt. I was confident in them the entire way."
All Central A&M coach Rob Smith could do when Heaton took the came over was smile on the sidelines of a packed Altamont Gymnasium. He's seen the show before.
"He’s a special talent and a special kid. He refuses to lose," Smith said. "He’s like, ‘Get on my back and let’s take this.’ He’s a super kid. He was special down the stretch.”
It was hardly a smooth path back to Carbondale. Nokomis, led by a school record 13 3-pointers, including seven from Alex Tosetti, threatened A&M's plans to advance to Peoria next weekend.
Central A&M led 53-41 with 5:04 left in the game and appeared poised to coast to super-sectionals. But Nokomis, behind six points from Tosetti, went on a 13-0 run to take a 54-53 lead with 3:32 left in the game. Heaton answered with a pair of free throws to take a one-point lead with 2:09 left.
“We knew they could shoot it, but if you would have told me they were going to make 13 3s, I would have said we were going to lose," Smith said. "We played exceptional and they played exceptional. That was an exceptional high school basketball game."
Tosetti, though, wasn't finished. He canned a 3-pointer with 1:48 — Nokomis' last basket — to take a 57-55 lead before six straight from Heaton and a pair of game-clinging free throws from Andricks.
“Our biggest thing was we didn’t quit," Heaton said. "They gave us a spark, and we knew it was coming at some point in the game, but we fought back."
A&M forced 15 Nokomis turnovers and got out and ran in transition — a place they're comfortable.
Paradee forced steal-after-steal and Andricks was a force in the post against 6-foot-8 big man Carter Sabol. Andricks had four blocks to save Sabol from having more than the 20 points he scored.
But when the Raiders ran, they didn't let Nokomis set its defense.
“They hurt us all game long, their ability to kick it out for easy buckets," Kimbro said. "... We never took that away from them and that hurt us."
Heaton got to work early, scoring 10 first-quarter points, but there are more than three main weapons on the team. Burgener took the second quarter by storm. He scored eight points in the second after what he called a bad game on Wednesday night.
It was just the spark the Raiders needed, and Burgener felt it. He called the win his "favorite game."
“I had a bad game the last game," he said. "I was real passive. I just wanted to show up for those guys. They were playing so good in the first quarter and we just needed to keep that intensity up for the rest of the game."
Burgner is another in a line of A&M players to come off the bench and make an impact. Last year, then-senior Tate Paradee was a sharp-shooter and hit big shots, especially against Nokomis in the sectional championship.
This season, Burgner careened through the lane, using his size to get to the rim.
“It’s crazy that we can have someone coming off the bench like that," Jacob Paradee said. "Last year it was Tate. We’ve seen it before, someone coming in and hitting big shots like that — it’s unbelievable."
The Raiders played a different role on Friday than they did last season. Last year, Paradee said, they were playing with nothing to lose. A&M was on the door, ready to break through — it's what made the super-sectional loss to Goreville so hard to stomach.
This year, they've been marked all season, but Nokomis had history on its side with head coach Steve Kimbro and his successful program.
“There was a lot of pressure on us because they’ve been a good team for the past 20 years and they’ve been known to win," Andricks said. "We’re just coming in and winning last year. We’re basically underdogs. Everyone was saying they were, but we were because this is our second year of being a good team."