BLOOMINGTON — While it might have seemed otherwise Friday, the basketball rims at Central Catholic High School's Cvengros Gym do not have lids and are not smaller than regulation.
With both teams struggling from the field, the host Saints found enough offensive rhythm and controlled a majority of the rebounds to pull away for a 70-50 victory over Illini Prairie Conference foe St. Thomas More.
"Even though we weren't knocking down shots tonight, I feel like I had to step up and make plays," said senior guard Austyn Ellison, who matched Jack Gilmore with a team-high 16 points while James Morris piled up 14 points and 19 rebounds.
"He's a monster, man. He's always on the boards and always getting putbacks. That's what he does; that's James," said Ellison, who rounded out his stat sheet with four of the Saints' 14 assists and three of their nine steals.
Ranked No. 8 in Class 2A, Central improved to 17-5 overall and 6-0 in Illini Prairie games with its 11th consecutive victory.
"I think we're jelling together really well right about the right time of year," said Ellison, who was also joined in double figures by Luke Yoder with 10. "We've got a few more left and it's going to get tougher, but we're going to get tougher as well. I think we're ready for that challenge."
Nick Fruehling led the Sabers (8-14, 2-3), scoring 15 of his 19 points after halftime and finishing with four 3-pointers. But St. Thomas shot a mere 32 percent (16 of 50).
"We usually shoot better than that. I thought we got pretty good looks and sometimes the shot is just not going to fall. It was just one of those nights," said Sabers coach Matt Kelley, a Central Catholic graduate whose team got outrebounded, 46-21.
"We weren't getting second-shot opportunities and to beat a team like Central you have to shoot the ball well."
St. Thomas made just 5 of 28 shots in the first half, connecting on 3 of 16 attempts from beyond the arc, while Central was 14 of 31 before intermission.
"Both teams didn't shoot the ball particularly well tonight and it happens," said Central coach Jason Welch. "That's why you want to put your standard on defense because defense will travel."
Central's victory came despite an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers.
"I'll be honest, I didn't think that we valued the ball real well," said Welch. "I thought we were seeing some things that weren't there, but they're all unselfish and they're trying to get people open."
A 3-pointer by Jake Sellett to open the second quarter got the Sabers within 15-13, but it wound up as their last field goal of the half as Central closed the half on a 17-3 run to assert control.
"Clearly, when you can hold them down like that it really gives you an opportunity to win a game. That may have been the difference in the game," said Welch.
A putback by Morris, his only offensive rebound among 14 first-half boards, capped an 11-0 burst to make it 26-13.
"Jim is just a good basketball player and on any night he could get rebounds, he can pass and he can shoot it. Whatever it takes to win, he's willing to do it," said Welch.
The Saints tacked on 3-pointers by Ellison and Gilmore to go into halftime up 32-16. Gilmore (three) and Ellison (two) accounted for all of the Saints' baskets from beyond the arc.
"He's been practicing better; he practices and sees it go in the hole," Welch said of Ellison. "When he sees a few go in, he's going to make some. We have a lot of confidence in him."
"We kind of let them stretch (the lead) there to 16. I would've liked it to be more of a 10-point game," said Kelley. "But they stretched it and they're a really tough team to come back against."
"That was huge, looking back at halftime and seeing what we did," Ellison said of limiting St. Thomas to six points in the second quarter. "We obviously had adjustments to make but we had something to build on for the second half."
After Gilmore started the third period with his final 3, a nifty Eli Davis layup had the Saints ahead 41-20 three minutes into the quarter. The Sabers got a little spark when Fruehling banged in a trey off an inbounds play with 0.7 on the quarter clock.
"There were times we played good defense," said Welch, "but to be honest I thought they shot the ball in the second half particularly well and gave themselves an opportunity to stay within closing distance."