NORMAL - For two and a half quarters, the Normal West High School basketball team was the giant killer Friday night, torturing and teasing a Champaign Central team that owns the No. 1 seed in its sectional complex and would possess the Big 12 Conference title with a win.
Then the Maroons demonstrated why they were the giants.
Trailing 35-31 with 3 minutes, 6 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Champaign scored 24 of the game's final 37 points to seal the game and the Big 12 title in a 65-51 defeat of the Wildcats on Senior Night at West Gymnasium.
The Maroons shared the conference title with Decatur Eisenhower, which beat Champaign Centennial 50-41 on Friday night. It is Champaign's fourth title in the past seven years, but only its fifth in the last 37.
"We had nothing to lose. We were playing the spoiling team tonight," West forward Cody White said. "We just wanted to hang around as long as possible to pull it out, but they're a great team and if they don't make it to Peoria there's something wrong."
Champaign certainly looked like a team that could make it to the Elite Eight.
After West (11-15, 4-8 in the Big 12) took a one-point lead in the third quarter, the Maroons ended the quarter on a 12-2 run over the final 2:39 to take a 43-47 lead into the fourth quarter. All 12 points in that span were scored by Spencer Johnson and Verdell Jones.
The Wildcats cut the deficit to 46-40 following a free throw from Todd Albert with 6:43 remaining, but Johnson and Jones scored the next 15 points to put Champaign (22-3, 12-1) up 61-51 with 1:40 left.
Of the Maroons' final 24 points, 22 came from the 6-foot-4 Johnson and the 6-1 Jones.
"If we can get that balance of inside and outside scoring, that makes us doubly tough," Champaign coach Scott Davis said.
Tough is what the Wildcats were in the first half. Despite being overmatched physically in the frontcourt, West led 27-26 at halftime by utilizing both its inside and outside game. The Wildcats received 14 points from its frontcourt and 13 from its backcourt.
"You can't run a lot of set stuff against them; you just have to be able to play," West coach Brian Cupples said. "Our kids did a great job of that against a team that really pressures you off the ball and on the ball."
Despite the continuous pressure from the Maroons, West had only four turnovers at halftime.
"For us to have four turnovers, that was perfect for us," White said.
Rebounding was not.
Champaign, which averages 6-5 on its frontcourt, outrebounded the Wildcats 35-18, including an 18-3 nod on the offensive glass.
"That's been our strength all season," Davis said. "We get down there and we attack the board and attack the glass. We got a couple kids that when it goes up, it's theirs."
Most of the boards found Johnson's hands. The senior snared a game-high 20 rebounds, the 34th most rebounds in state history.
"I just try to go after it every game. Really," Johnson said. "I just try to make a goal for every game of how many rebounds and how many offensive rebounds I can get."
His goal was 15. Johnson finished with a game-high 24 points, while Jones added 15. Jordan Lee contributed 12 points.
West was paced by White's 17 points. Luke Stewart added 13 points and had a team-high seven boards. Corey Aken scored 12 points off the bench.
"We just wanted to go out on a good note. I thought we did even though we lost," said White, whose team will open postseason play at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday against LaSalle-Peru at Normal Community. "I thought we played some great basketball tonight and everyone is 0-0 starting regionals so who knows?"