SPRINGFIELD — Austyn Ellison had a message for fellow senior James Morris as their Central Catholic High School basketball team found itself tied heading into the final quarter Tuesday.
"I told James before the fourth quarter, 'We've got eight more minutes. We go home or we go to Peoria.' He got a fire in his eye," Ellison said.
Morris turned that fire into 10 fourth-quarter points, and the No. 7-ranked Saints needed every one of them to reach the state finals with a 47-46 victory over a tenacious Deer Creek-Mackinaw squad in the Class 2A Illinois-Springfield Super-Sectional at The Recreation and Athletics Center.
"We worked so hard for this moment and I wasn't going to go down easy," said Morris, who capped his team-high 16 points with two clutch free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," added junior Luke Yoder, whose fourth-quarter three-pointer gave Central the lead for good. "It pays off for all the hard work, the sweat and blood and everything we've done."
The Saints advanced to face top-ranked Chicago Orr, a 74-64 winner over Chicago Hope at Joliet, in Friday's 7:15 p.m. state semifinal at Peoria's Carver Arena. Central improved to 25-6 while Dee-Mack finished its season at 25-7.
"Dee-Mack's a good basketball team, well-coached kids who played hard. It's really too bad someone lost this game," said Central coach Jason Welch, who returns to state after guiding the Saints to the 2A title in 2014. "Really, no one lost. It was two winning programs. Our guys just had one more play."
Dee-Mack senior Levi Scheuermann led all scorers with 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, while Neal Scheuermann added 17.
"I know we lost by one but I'm certainly proud of our kids," said Chiefs coach John Hughs, whose team had won seven in a row and 11 of 12. "Central Catholic really hasn't been challenged in the postseason and our kids came out and gave everything they had.
"I've never coached a bunch of guys that embodied the word 'team' more than these guys did. They played for each other and they sold out on the defensive end. They embodied what small school basketball is supposed to be about."
After a three-point play by Levi Scheuermann with 14.5 seconds to go pulled Dee-Mack within 45-43, the Chiefs quickly fouled Morris. The 6-foot-3 forward sank both of his one-and-bonus attempts.
"He's been doing that all season, stepping up for us and playing good ball," said Central senior Jack Gilmore, who led the team with eight rebounds. "I know we can rely on him or any other player on this team, but James did it tonight."
After a Central timeout, Neal Scheuermann sank a 3-pointer — the Chiefs only hit on 14 tries from long range — with 2.4 on the clock. Out of timeouts, Hughs wanted to call another for a deliberate technical foul but officials let the time run out.
"I wanted to stop the clock and get (the lead) under three, and they didn't call it," he said. "That's the breaks of the game. We had plenty of opportunities before that."
Morris opened the fourth quarter with a three-point play to break a 28-all tie, but Dee-Mack took it's only lead at 32-31 on a jumper by Levi Scheuermann with 5:24 remaining.
Central answered when Morris worked his way into the lane before kicking it out to Yoder for an open three. Morris then came up with a steal and dished to Tommy Nelson to finish off a fast break that made it 36-32.
"As a senior, I felt I had to lead the team in some way," said Morris. "Everyone steps up in different games, and I was the one who came forward. Every game it's someone new and that's what's great about this team."
"Jimmy did a great job, he seized the moment," added Welch. "A big time player comes up big in a big moment. He put us right on his shoulder and I'm so proud of him."
The Saints got off to a 12-1 start with a pair of Ellison treys before Dee-Mack made its first field goal on a Neal Scheuermann layup off a Central turnover with 2:44 on the clock.
But that started an 8-0 surge for the Chiefs that made it a three-point contest at the first quarter break when Neal Scheuermann's second-chance floater went through at the buzzer.
"I thought we'd struggle adjusting to the speed of the game early," said Hughs. "As the game went on, we really did a good job coming back and battling them."
A seesaw second quarter saw its last bucket when Morris converted a nifty feed from Yoder to give Central a 23-17 advantage. But Dee-Mack seized momentum in the third quarter.
A rebound bucket by Darien Rucker cut the Saints' lead to 26-23 and Neal Scheuermann's layup with 1:38 left in the third period made it 28-27 as both fan bases grew increasingly loud. Levi Scheuermann then made one of two free throws with 1.9 to go in the quarter to tie the game.
"We never looked at the scoreboard and got worried," said Ellison. "We just trusted the guy next to us and we got the job done."
Morris called the state berth a "dream come true for every single one of us," a goal several of them set for themselves as eighth-grade teammates.
"We said we'd go to state our senior year and we made it come true," he said. "It's awesome."