NORMAL — Three days after taking the state’s third-ranked Class 3A team to overtime, University High School was taking the fight to No. 1-ranked Springfield Southeast on Friday night at the U High Gym.
The Pioneers led 41-35 three minutes into the third quarter and an enthusiastic U High student section was thinking upset.
Southeast had something else in mind.
“We knew it was just a matter of time,” Spartans coach Lawrence Thomas said. “We just had to stay locked in and keep defending. We were ready for that spurt and we got it.”
Southeast scored the final 11 points of the third quarter and the first two of the fourth, seizing a 48-41 lead and went on to a 60-49 Central State Eight Conference victory.
U High, which lost in OT to Springfield Lanphier on Tuesday, was 2 of 9 from the field and had six turnovers in the pivotal third quarter.
“We told our kids before the game, ‘They’re going to make a run,’ ” U High coach Andrew McDowell said. “We felt comfortable that we would be able to play and get a lead and they were going to make a run. They made it, and we never really were able to recover from that run.
“They turned it up a little bit defensively. It was a physical game and I thought their physicality in the third quarter led to their run.”
Six-three junior Anthony Fairlee started the surge with a 15-foot jumper. The Spartans (18-2, 11-1) reeled off 11 points in a two-minute stretch, capped by Kobe Medley’s steal and three-point play.
U High did not score over the final five minutes of the quarter after Mark Widdel’s two free throws had given the Pioneers their 41-35 lead.
“I think we just kind of lost our heads a little bit,” said Widdel, who led U High with 16 points and nine rebounds. “We were dribbling a little too much. We weren’t really setting up plays as well as we probably should have. They just kind of sped us up a little bit.”
Fairlee had two baskets in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter and Southeast stretched the lead to 53-43.
U High was 2 of 14 from the field in the final period and 4 of 23 in the second half. The Pioneers scored 15 points after halftime while falling to 10-13 overall and 6-7 in the Central State Eight.
It was a stark contrast to the way U High began the game, hitting 7 of 9 in the first quarter. The Pioneers bolted to leads of 7-0 and 9-2, but Southeast came back to trail 17-16 after one quarter and 34-31 at the half.
“Southeast is so well-coached. His team could have rolled over,” McDowell said. “They’re No. 1 in the state, a big target on their back. We came out and really took it to them early. They kept fighting and kept believing in what they did.”
Medley added 19 points for Southeast, including four first-half 3-pointers. Stepheon Sims scored 13 for the Spartans, who played their third game without standout point guard Terrion Murdix because of a broken thumb.
Southeast finished 22 of 46 from the field and hounded U High into 19 turnovers while committing 11.
“We have a team of stars and you have to pick your poison,” Thomas said. “We just stayed solid. We’ll take what the defense gives us, but by the same token we’re always in attack mode. We kept the pressure consistent in the second half and you could see it wearing on them.”
Caleb Diffor sank three 3-pointers and added nine points for U High, which was 10 of 37 from the field after its 7 of 9 start.
“Our basketball team is right there,” McDowell said. “We’re sitting on the edge. We just have to start making the winning plays to get over the edge. That’s what it comes down to.”