BLOOMINGTON — Locked in a tight battle in the final minute, the Central Catholic High School girls basketball team got its biggest play of the night from one of its youngest players.
Freshman Katie Steinman's driving layup with 48.9 seconds remaining gave the Class 3A No. 8 Saints the lead for good Thursday as they rallied for a 62-57 victory over St. Joseph-Ogden in Illini Prairie Conference play at Cvengros Gym.
"I just saw no help on the weak side, so I took it down and drove it. I would've kicked it out, but (the defender) didn't come on me so I just took it in all the way," said Steinman, whose clutch bucket put the Saints ahead 58-57.
"I just knew she was going to make it, honestly," said junior guard Lauren Shanks, who filled up her stat sheet with a team-high 18 points, eight rebounds, eight steals and five assists.
With its eighth straight victory, Central improved to 20-11 overall while clinching the inaugural conference title at 8-0 with one game remaining.
"That's what we wanted all season and we got it. We worked hard for it, so it's exciting," said Shanks.
With no seniors on their roster, the Saints honored head coach Debbie Coffman and assistant Mendy Smith for their 20 years of coaching together at Central Catholic. They have now won 468 games without a losing season.
But to get it, they needed to battle back from a halftime deficit while overcoming a 21-point showing by Spartans junior Bree Trimble.
Trimble had 14 points on 7 of 10 shooting while Hannah Dukeman was 5 for 5 from the field with one 3-pointer for 11 of her 13 points as SJO (18-8, 6-2) took a 32-26 lead into halftime.
"We needed to force them into something because in the first half, they were hot," said Coffman, whose balanced lineup received 14 points apiece from freshman Abbey Davis and junior Bailey Coffman while Steinman finished with eight.
"They got their shots up and that's a good, well-rounded ball club in every spot that they play. Each quarter some other kid stepped up big for them."
"I think we had a couple too many turnovers at the wrong time," said SJO coach Kevin Taylor. "But it was a good game and unfortunately somebody had to lose."
Davis finished with four 3-pointers. Her third came with a minute left in the third to give Central its first lead since 6-4 at 47-46. After Payton Crowe hit a 3 for SJO, Davis drained another at the third-quarter buzzer.
But the Spartans then scored the first six points of the fourth before Central went back up 56-54 on a fastbreak basket by Steinman. SJO answered with a trey by Dukeman and called timeout with 59.4 seconds on the clock.
Coach Coffman had a message for Steinman.
"One time in a timeout I told her, 'Katie, you've started to drive. Continue to drive.' She did that the next time and it's great to see those things happen with these girls," Coffman said.
With Shanks and Bailey Coffman coming up with key rebounds, Central iced the victory with free throws.
"In the first half, I think we just did a better job of handling the pressure and we made our shots," said Taylor. "There at the end we missed some shots that we should've knocked down. But that happens."
"I think we settled down on defense and found our groove," said Coach Coffman. "Everybody stepping up tonight was big for us. It was a fun game to watch."
The Saints play Teutopolis at Champaign's Parkland College on Friday before finishing the regular season with a makeup conference game at Rantoul on Tuesday.