EFFINGHAM — The fist bumps began with 16.8 seconds left, when Jeff Miller knew he’d wrapped up his team’s first major goal of a season that, right now, has no obvious end in sight.
Charleston won the Apollo Conference regular-season title outright by vanquishing Effingham 56-46 Monday night, the Trojans' third victory over the Hearts this season.
“Who’s going to beat them three times?” Miller said. “I never dreamed we would.”
The Trojans trailed for a majority of the first half, but rode Shae Littleford’s 29 points, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. They erased a 40-37 deficit to start the final period by using a 12-2 run. It all amounted to a 25-0 start to the year and 12-0 record in the league.
“Just a high-level 3A basketball game,” Miller said. “We thought it was going to be a tight one all the way through.”
In winning Monday, Miller reached a milestone of his own, too. He now is Charleston girl’s basketball’s all-time wins leader. Monday’s victory was his 220th in 12 seasons at the school, passing John Easter, who went 219-156 in 17 seasons from 1976-77 through 1992-93. He said he was aware of it heading into the game.
“I’m more excited about winning the Apollo,” he said, smiling.
The 25 wins are also tied for the most in a single season in school history, matching last year’s team and the 2009-10 one.
Effingham (23-5, 9-2), with a fully healthy starting lineup and on its home floor, gave Charleston every swing it had. The Hearts led 14-9 early in the second quarter and 30-29 early in the third. The baseline-to-baseline stands on one side were about two-thirds full of fans who erupted with every Effingham lead and shot their arms up in disgust after every foul call they viewed as suspect.
Littleford and Effingham senior Skyler Shafer started trading points for about half the third quarter. Shaffer scored seven straight points for the Hearts. Littleford, in turn, scored eight of Charleston’s last 10 third-quarter points. The one basket she didn’t make was an Elizabeth Buescher layup on which she had the assist.
Shafer cooled down after her 3-pointer gave Effingham its 40-37 lead 32 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Littleford didn’t. She rattled off two straight baskets, and Regan Bollant followed with a 3 that gave the Trojans a 44-41 lead. They never trailed again.
Miller largely used a six-player rotation and never took Littleford out of the game. He didn’t substitute at all until halfway through the second quarter and at one point used five guards. Littleford had zero 3-pointers and, as usual, did most of her damage with a mid-range jumper, at the rim and at the foul line. She went to her right hand a couple times, but once again, was mainly left-hand dominant. Not that it has mattered all year, because no one has found the solution to stopping it. Charleston’s steady supporting cast only adds to the issue.
“With the shooters that they have, that’s part of her success,” Effingham coach Jeff Shafer said. “If you help off of them, they make you pay.”
“She’s the best passer on the team,” he said. “And we have some athletes, too.”
Effingham began fouling with 1:08 left, down 47-42 after committing a five-second violation on an inbound after a pair of Littleford free throws. Charleston ensured Effingham never sniffed a comeback by making nine free throws in that span.
Charleston exacted some year-old revenge by beating Effingham three times. Last season, the Hearts did exactly that.
“Hopefully we’ll play them one more time,” Miller said, “because that means we’ll see them in the super-sectional.”