PEORIA — For 12 minutes Friday, the Central Catholic High School basketball had the look of an unheralded challenger poised to take down a heavyweight champion.
"We wanted to follow our assignments and come out to start the game and take it to them. I think we did that," said senior forward James Morris.
But then those Saints shots that seemed to land effortlessly against top-ranked defending champion Chicago Orr either would not fall or completely disappeared.
Orr broke away from a halftime tie with a 10-2 run and held No. 7 Central at bay the rest of the way for a 60-49 win in the Class 2A state semifinals at Carver Arena.
"They made more shots than us, but they didn't out-tough us," said Central coach Jason Welch, whose team slipped to 25-7 while Orr moved to 29-4.
"When you're giving up size, strength and speed in spots, sometimes that's the equalizer. But our guys didn't look at the scoreboard; they just kept fighting."
The Saints will play No. 3 Pinckneyville (31-4) in Saturday's 5:30 p.m. third-place game, with Orr meeting No. 4 Winnebago (30-2) in the 7:15 p.m. title contest.
"It's pretty hard, but we've just got to flip the page," said Central's Jack Gilmore. "I think we're all pretty tough enough to do that. We've just got to regroup tomorrow. "
Morris topped the Saints with 14 points and 10 rebounds, matching Orr's Dannie Smith and Chase Adams as the game's leading scorers. Central also got eight points apiece from Austyn Ellison and Tommy Nelson.
"It definitely stings," said Ellison. "So many people had us counted out, but we wanted to be in that (championship) game tomorrow."
Orr's Brian Hernandez scored nine points and first-team all-stater Raekwon Drake added eight along with seven blocks, but he was limited to two points in the first half.
"First quarter, we were just out there and had no sense of direction," said Orr coach Lou Adams. "We knew it could only get better. Second half, our boys came out and played like they normally do."
Two inside baskets by Smith started the Spartans' third-quarter surge and Brian Hernandez connected on consecutive 3-pointers to finish off an Orr burst that made it 44-36.
"That start was important," said Smith. "We had a slow start to the first half, so coming out for the second half we had to push each other and force some turnovers, get some stops and make some shots. That's what we did."
From there, the Saints got no closer than five.
"Our kids did a nice job of resisting as long as they could. I was proud of them because we fought our brains out," said Welch.
"You talk about the stat line and if you'd told me the Saints lose the rebounding war by two (30-28), I'll tell you we've got a bunch of fighters. Guys played their guts out and gave us a chance to win."
Morris got the Saints off to a hot start, with an early go-ahead layup followed by nifty assists to Nelson inside and to Yoder for an open 3 that put Central ahead, 9-4. Gilmore and Ellison added another trey apiece as the Saints took a 19-15 advantage into the first-quarter break.
A play midway through the second typified the Saints' relenting effort. With the team struggling on the offensive end, Morris prevented a turnover by grabbing a misdirected pass at the top of the key and slinging a feed to an unguarded Nelson for a layup that made it 28-23.
After another Morris basket extended the lead to seven points, the Spartans surged to close the half. Michael Taylor's breakaway layup off a steal trimmed the Central lead to 32-29 and a tough basket by Smith made it a one-point battle.
Eli Davis made a nifty drive through the lane for a layup in the final minute, but Orr answered with a 3-pointer by Hernandez that knotted things at 34-all going into halftime.
"Let's be real honest, if you were giving somebody 20 points you still may not even bet on us," said Welch. "Ultimately, our guys gave us a real opportunity to win the game. We just didn't make a few shots."