PEORIA — A brotherhood forged years ago and strengthened over 33 games had no intention of losing its last contest.
"We made it right to us that we were going to win our last game," said Jack Gilmore, one of the eight seniors on Central Catholic High School's resilient basketball team. "Only two teams in (Class) 2A are going to come out with a win in their last game of the season, and we're one of them."
With senior guards Austyn Ellison and Eli Davis combining for 37 points, the No. 7-ranked Saints bounced back from a stinging semifinal loss by notching a 69-61 victory over Pinckneyville in the 2A State Tournament's third-place game Saturday at Carver Arena.
Central built a 15-point halftime lead but had to hold on as the No. 3 Panthers climbed within three on two occasions in the final two minutes.
"It wasn't really any magic potion or key," said Ellison, who finished with game-highs of 22 points and seven rebounds. "We just stuck to our gut and our keys from the whole year, what we've been doing throughout the whole season."
Davis added 15 points off the bench while Gilmore finished with 10. Junior forward Tommy Nelson followed with nine and senior Patrick Rahuba added eight as Central shot 59.5 percent (25-42) in closing its season at 26-7.
"It feels amazing to be finishing with a win, but also to know that this is the last time putting on this jersey with my brothers ... this has been four years in the making," said Davis. "These are not just teammates, they're my best friends."
Central coach Jason Welch credited the Saints' abundance of "senior leadership" with sealing the win, saying, "I told them, 'At the end of the day, the deal is this: When this game is over, you're going to give me your jersey and you don't get it back. That jersey is mine.
"'How's it going to look when you're done? Are you going to come out fighting or are you just going to give it away?' They came out fighting tonight."
Central saw its double-digit margin trimmed to 62-59 on a 3-pointer by Tanner Spihlmann with two minutes left. After Ellison fed Nelson for a layup, Grant Jausel kept the Panthers in striking distance before the Saints scored the final five points.
"We've got a lot of seniors and today that senior leadership paid off," Welch said. "They didn't panic and they figured out a way to make one more play."
Jausel finished with 16 points to lead three players in double figures for Pinckneyville (31-5). Kyle Luke added 13 before fouling out and Dawson Yates chipped in 10.
"There was no way that we were going to go off that floor without giving everything that we have," said Pinckneyville coach Bob Waggoner, whose team shot 57.7 percent (15 of 26) in the second half, including 6 of 12 from 3-point range.
A night after a tough 60-49 loss to top-ranked defending champion Chicago Orr, the Saints came out strong. Rahuba's second three-point play of the first quarter gave Central its first lead at 7-6 and the margin grew to 14-8 heading into the second period.
"It was very important," Rahuba said of the fast start. "We just had to push the tempo and play our game. We knew that once we started to play how we wanted to play and not to how Pinckneyville wanted to play, we knew we were going to get the big lead."
Central closed the half on a 12-3 run, capped by junior Luke Yoder's offensive rebound and reverse layup at the buzzer. Ellison had 10 points over the first 16 minutes and Nelson followed with 12.
"I'd never played with most of these people before coming into this year," said Nelson. "It was nice to get to know these guys and it was probably the best season of my life."
Senior James Morris scored one point in just 13 minutes as Welch worked to get as many players involved as possible. Little-used senior forwards Owen Talbott and Garrison Kear saw action in the first half.
"Those boys there, they don't get to play a lot on Tuesday and Friday nights," said Welch. "They deserved an opportunity to get out there and battle and I'm awfully proud of them. They didn't hurt me a bit. They were good teammates and I love those boys."
Gilmore said the brotherhood with his fellow seniors will be his best memory from his final season.
"They were always there for me whenever things were down," he said. "It was always awesome going out there every day, practice or a game. It was a pleasure playing with them."
Nelson hopes his own senior season becomes just as memorable.
"We're going to try to do the same thing we did this year and make it to state," he said. "We're definitely going to have to have a lot of younger guys step up, but we'll see what happens."
And what will Welch remember of his seniors?
"They've impacted me more than I impact them," he said. "I'm a better person because of these guys."
Rally on Monday: Central Catholic will celebrate the third-place finish with an 11:40 a.m. rally Monday in the school’s auditorium.