MAROA — Junior center Tommy Nelson would not sugar-coat the first half his Central Catholic High School basketball team played Tuesday.
"That was probably the worst basketball we've played all year, I think," said Nelson after the No. 7-state ranked Saints went into halftime trailing Decatur St. Teresa, 18-16.
So Nelson and his teammates had a simple message for each other during the break.
"We said coming into halftime, 'We're not going home,'" he said.
A pair of 3-pointers by senior Jack Gilmore jump-started Central's 19-4 burst to open the third quarter as Central rode a 50-point second half to a 66-41 semifinal victory in the Class 2A Maroa-Forsyth Sectional.
"The way we played in the first half, that should not be what we remembered as our last game this season," said Gilmore, one of four Saints to score in double figures. "It's been a remarkable season and we can't go out like that."
The Saints improved to 23-6 and advanced to Friday's 7 p.m. all-Illini Prairie Conference sectional final against the winner of Wednesday's game between No. 5 Monticello (22-1) and St. Joseph-Ogden (26-3).
"The mindset is to keep this momentum going. We should come out on top if we play the way we should," said Nelson, who led Central with 17 points while Gilmore, Austyn Ellison and James Morris added 10 apiece.
Central coach Jason Welch gave his team one simple instruction during his halftime speech.
"Relax," he said. "At the end of the day, you've got 16 minutes so play hard and have some fun. It's not life or death, but you've got to go out there and play as a team. It's not one guy; it's just share the ball, trust each other and you'll be fine."
Isaiah Bond scored 22 points for the Bulldogs (22-7), split evenly between halves. But St. Teresa could not keep the game at their pace, committing seven turnovers in the third quarter.
"We did a really good job for a half of keeping them out of transition and having them play our tempo," said Bulldogs coach Tom Noonan. "That second half was their tempo and that's what they do, they blow a lot of teams out because they wear you down."
The Saints won a January matchup with St. Teresa by 33, but only held brief one-point leads in the first 16 minutes.
"We were just not there and nothing was falling," said Nelson. "We just expected to win the game. We did not come in with the fight that we needed."
Gilmore's second 3 gave Central a 22-20 lead early in the third quarter. Nelson converted an assist from Luke Yoder on a fast break and Ellison scored off another Yoder feed in transition as the Saints began their surge.
"It was part of it definitely," Gilmore said of his two big 3s, "but give credit to the other players on the team. We had a couple good steals by Luke and Austyn and that got us going in transition, playing our type of game."
Nelson drained a floater after a Bulldogs timeout and added another inside bucket to finish the 19-4 surge before the Central margin grew to 39-25 by the end of the quarter.
"I think I was pretty aggressive tonight. It was my night to shoot and usually it's not my night," he said. "But tonight I had the ball a lot and I finished at the rim."
The Saints dropped a 56-53 decision at Monticello on Feb. 10 and notched a 76-54 win over SJO a week later on Senior Night at Central.
"Let's be honest, both those guys are really good and they're well coached and they have postseason pedigree," Welch said of the possible opponents. "You're going to see a really good basketball team. We're just excited to get there and have an opportunity to keep our basketball season going."