NORMAL — Another valiant effort again fell just short for the University High School basketball team Tuesday, this time in a thrilling double overtime battle.
With junior guard Bryson Cowper coming up big in the second extra session, Champaign Centennial spoiled the Pioneers' senior night with a 52-51 victory in nonconference play at the U High Gym.
"I think for us right now it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We get in a tight game and we're just kind of waiting for something bad to happen instead of going out and taking control of the game, making winning plays and pulling it out," said U High coach Andrew McDowell.
Cowper finished with a game-high 19 points, breaking a 45-45 tie with a deep 3-pointer with a minute left in the second overtime. He then made two clutch free throws with 9.1 seconds on the clock to give the Chargers a four-point advantage before U High's Alex Wood drained his fifth 3-pointer for the final score.
Wood's 15 points led U High, which slipped to 10-14 while Centennial improved to 12-11. Mark Widdel had 13 points and 11 rebounds and Nate Torres added 10 points and 13 boards for the Pioneers.
Last week, the Pioneers pushed Class 3A No. 3 Springfield Lanphier and No. 1 Springfield Southeast to the limit before ultimately falling to their Central State Eight Conference rivals.
"I have so much confidence in our team. I could be crazy to have as much confidence as I do because all the close ones are going against us," said McDowell. "Ultimately that's on me; as a coach I've got to figure out a way to pull out those close games."
Trailing for most of the first half, U High went up 35-33 when Widdel converted a nifty pass from Trey Mortimer early in the third. Wood followed with a trey off another Mortimer pass.
But the Chargers tied it at 41-41 with 52 seconds left in regulation on a 3 by Tommy Makabu, who finished with 17. U High turned it over with a five-second violation, but Centennial missed a contested layup and the game went into OT.
Centennial nearly won at the end of the first OT but Jaden Roberts-Thomas missed an uncontested layup just before the horn. Roberts-Thomas only had one basket but grabbed 11 boards.
After Cowper put his team up 48-45, Makabu scored on a runner following a U High miss. The Pioneers got a trey by Mortimer to get within two before Cowper's late free throws made it a four-point game.
"They're a tough team to come back against with how patient they are. I was really surprised at how patient they played on offense," said McDowell. "Our kids are right there and they're battling every night and they're battling, really being competitive. It's just not falling our way right now."
Patient, deliberate offenses combined with cold shooting to depress scoring in the first half. U High made six field goals on 22 shots in the half, including just 2 of 12 from 3-point range. Centennial was 9 for 24 overall and 2 of 10 from long distance.
Down 11-4 after a quarter, the Pioneers rallied to take a 15-14 lead on a Wood 3-pointer after Widdel completed a conventional three-point play.
But the Chargers answered by scoring the final seven points of the half on a trey by Tamba Kulo, a nifty finish in traffic by Roberts-Thomas and a fastbreak bucket by Cowper.
McDowell accepted full responsibility for the defeat.
"'Players win games, coaches lose them' is a popular saying," he said, "and right now I've got to find a way."