PEORIA — Senior guard Eli Davis admitted he spent a lot of time “hoping and praying” his Central Catholic High School basketball team would reach the Class 2A state tournament — partly for a chance to claim some family bragging rights.
“My sister (Lexi Davis) went to state a few years ago and she kind of holds that over me, saying she’s the best basketball player in the family,” Eli Davis said after Thursday’s practice session at Carver Arena.
As a junior who helped the Central girls place third in 2015, Lexi Davis gave her younger brother some advice about playing in the state finals.
“She said to definitely take things in the moment and don’t take it all for granted,” said Eli Davis. “In a week, all this will be gone. So take it all in and go out there and play as hard as you can, play your heart out.”
After surviving a tight super-sectional battle with Deer Creek-Mackinaw, the No. 7-ranked Saints carry a 25-6 record into Friday’s 7:15 p.m. semifinal (NBC Sports Chicago), where they will face top-ranked defending champion Chicago Orr (28-4).
“Everybody’s saying that we’ve got to play Orr, but they’ve got to play us too,” said Central senior guard Austyn Ellison. “It goes both ways.”
A powerhouse program from the big city’s west side, the Spartans boast a first-team all-state selection in 6-foot-5 senior forward Raekwon Drake, a second-teamer in 6-5 senior forward Dannie Smith and an honorable mention honoree in 5-8 senior guard Chase Adams.
“It just adds fuel to the fire,” added Davis, addressing the recognition Orr has received. “It doesn’t make us nervous, it just makes us more amped up for the game to show how good we are. We are definitely going to go out there and try to show them, give them a run for their money.”
Central coach Jason Welch, who guided the Saints to the crown four years ago, said the key is to not be intimidated — by the opponent or by the setting.
“It’s important to have fun, relax and enjoy the moment. I think when you do that, you’ll play better,” said Welch. “Sometimes athletes in general, when they get in a stage like this they get so tight that it’s hard to perform.”
With their deep rotation, the Saints have six players averaging at least 8.0 points per game with 6-6 senior forward Jack Gilmore leading the way at 13.4. Orr counters with Drake, also a first-team all-stater last year, at 13.5 points and 7.7 rebounds while Smith checks in at 16.1 and Adams at 13.0.
“I think you’ve got to be aware of their strengths,” said Welch, whose team has won 19 of 20 since the start of January. “Certainly you know that they’re a very good basketball team, probably one of the best basketball teams in the state of Illinois in any class. So we know what we’ve got in front of us.
“You’ve got to control the controllables: coming back to the ball, screening out, short and low on close-outs. Those are things we can control.”
Ellison isn’t worried about potentially getting into an up-tempo battle.
“Honestly, we can run with them,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all year, getting up in transition. I’m confident that our guys will be able to run with anybody.”
The Spartans average 73.3 points per game while holding opponents to 57.3. They have broken 80 nine times and held their foes below 50 on seven occasions, playing with a target on their backs all season.
“We feel like the Golden State Warriors; everywhere we go people take a shot at us,” said Orr coach Lou Adams. “But we’ve been good at defending ourselves.”
Orr has won 15 of 16 with the lone setback coming against perennial power Simeon in the Chicago Public Schools Tournament finals on Feb. 18. The Spartans’ other losses came against Curie, Danville and Detroit East English Village.
However, the Spartans had to overcome a 24-6 deficit and survive an overtime scare against Uplift in the semifinals of the Timothy Christian Sectional, getting 23 points from unheralded guard Brian Hernandez.
“I think it was a good (wake-up) call. That propelled us to get downstate because the guys saw that this was real, we can’t take teams for granted” said Adams. “Anybody playing basketball at this point is pretty good.
“We can’t worry about Central, we’ve just got to do what Orr does. If we do what we do, I think we’ll be OK.”
The 5:30 p.m. first semifinal pits No. 3 Pinckneyville (31-3) against No. 4 Winnebago (29-2). Pinckneyville is led by senior guards Grant Jausel (13.6 ppg) and J.C Moll (13.2) while Winnebago features first-team all-state center (19.7).
The semifinal winners meet for the top trophy at 7:15 p.m. Saturday following the 5:30 third-place game.