BLOOMINGTON - The Flanagan High School girls basketball team was staring at a nine-point deficit midway though the third quarter against the host Saints in the championship game of the Central Catholic Class A Sectional.
As they have done so many times before, the Falcons willed themselves to victory.
"We just found it within ourselves," said Flanagan junior forward Megan Laughlin. "We know what we have to do to get it done."
Laughlin scored 11 of her game-high 20 points in the final period Thursday, and the top-seeded Falcons made all the key plays in the last minute to secure a 52-46 win over second-seeded Central Catholic.
Flanagan, supported by a sea of orange-clad fans, improved to 27-3 with its first sectional title while avenging a 73-70 regular-season loss to Central Catholic. The Falcons will face No. 9-ranked St. Joseph-Ogden at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Illinois Wesleyan Super-Sectional.
"This means everything right now," Laughlin said. "We've had our minds on this all year. It's been our main goal. To get this far and to do it on their home court, it feels awesome
"Our crowd was awesome tonight. They had our backs the whole way."
Central Catholic (18-12), which overcame 30 turnovers through pure hustle, opened a 35-26 advantage with 4:17 left in the third quarter on three straight baskets by sophomore center Amanda Murray. Cold-shooting Flanagan cut the deficit to 35-31 by the end of the period on a three-point play by Laughlin and a basket by Anna Jones.
The Falcons kept chipping away and went ahead 40-38 with 5:46 remaining on a 3-point basket by Laughlin. The lead changed hands three times before Laughlin put Flanagan ahead to stay at 47-43 with another 3-pointer and a basket in the lane.
With Flanagan holding a 47-46 lead with 33 seconds left, senior guard Brittany Leonard missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity before sneaking in to grab the rebound.
Leonard fired the ball to a wide-open Kelsey Laughlin for a back-breaking bucket to give Flanagan some breathing room.
"I know everybody is yelling and wanting me to miss, but I always try to go up to the line confident and tune everything out," Leonard said. "As soon as I saw it wasn't going in I figured I had to get that ball because we needed it to stay in control. I was going to shoot it, but I saw my girl open so I dished it off."
Central Catholic missed a 3-point attempt on the ensuing possession, and the Falcons secured the win with three free throws in the final eight seconds.
"I'm sure they had some doubts creep in," said Flanagan coach Jeff Sprouse. "You just have to get some good things going. When you get the momentum going, even if you're down nine, you can make a few plays. The kids didn't hang their heads.
"The biggest thing with us is if we relax, we're fine. We got a little tense in the first half. That happens. It's a huge game, and we've never been here before."
Leonard finished with 11 points and Kelsey Laughlin, Megan's older sister, added 10. The Laughlins didn't play in the regular-season game against Central Catholic because of a club volleyball commitment. Flanagan needed a 7-of-9 shooting performance in the fourth quarter to finish at 35 percent (19 of 55).
Murray collected 12 points and six rebounds to lead Central Catholic, which overcame a 7-0 deficit to grab a 27-24 halftime lead.
"I thought our kids gave them a hell of a game," said Central Catholic coach Debbie Coffman, whose team was denied a third straight super-sectional berth. "We had them at halftime, but a lot of little things happened. We told the kids if we could hold them under 50 points the game would be ours, and they got 52."
Senior Stacey Miller, the Saints' only returning starter, added eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Freshman guard Ashley Schopp contributed eight points off the bench. The Saints, who shot 34 percent (18 of 53), held a 40-26 edge on the boards.
"These kids have been great," Coffman said. "Nobody ever thought we would be here. To be in the top 32 in the state, I'm very proud of them.
"I can't say enough about our two seniors (Miller and Jamie Peel). I've had some talented, talented teams, but I've never had two leaders like those kids. They took a lot of freshmen and sophomores under their wings and showed them the right direction."