MAROA — A superb defensive effort, a senior with a hot hand, a measure of revenge and a sectional championship.
The Central Catholic High School basketball team got all of those Friday in a 56-34 blitzing of Monticello in a matchup of state-ranked Illini Prairie Conference rivals in the Class 2A Maroa-Forsyth Sectional final.
"We wanted to play them again. We wanted the rematch," said senior James Morris after the top-seeded No. 7 Saints avenged a 56-53 road loss from Feb. 9. "We felt like we gave them one last time. We came out here and gave it our all."
Six-foot-six senior James Gilmore poured in 24 points with four 3-pointers to pace the offense for Central, which improved to 24-6 and advanced to face Deer Creek-Mackinaw in Tuesday's 7 p.m. super-sectional at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
"It's crazy, it's awesome. Going to the elite eight is always going to be a great experience," said Gilmore, who scored 15 in the first half and finished with seven rebounds while Morris pulled down eight.
"Jack has done that all year," said Central coach Jason Welch. "He got his feet set and consequently hit some shots. When he gets a good look, he's going to make some shots."
But the biggest star may have been the Saints' defense, especially on the Sages' 6-6 senior forward Calvin Fisher, who came in averaging 16.4 points and scored 24 in the regular-season meeting.
"We knew that he's a really good player and last time he hurt us pretty bad," said Morris. "We worked in practice all week on getting better and how to defend him as a team."
This time the Saints held him to eight points on five free-throws and one field goal — a 3-pointer with 3:36 to play and Central ahead by 28.
"We just had to stay with him. We had a defensive plan from the start to stay with him and sag off the kids that couldn't shoot," said 6-foot guard Luke Yoder, who drew the initial defensive assignment on Fisher. "It worked. We won by 20 and it was a fun game.
"I wanted blood for that loss at Monticello. I was ready to guard him and take him down."
Johnny Dawson also scored eight and Luke Stokowski added seven for the second-seeded, No. 5-ranked Sages (25-2), who had a 17-game winning streak snapped.
"They're just real physical. They were physical with Calvin and Luke (Stokowski)," said Monticello coach Kevin Roy. "We needed some other guys to step up tonight and we didn't have that."
Featuring their usual balanced offense centered around transition baskets, the Saints never trailed as Morris started the game with two free throws after a steal. A Gilmore fastbreak layup finished the first quarter with Central ahead 15-6.
"I definitely think our tempo was way better," said Gilmore, noting a boost from a strong Central contingent in a near capacity crowd. "Neutral court, we had a lot of fans here this time. I think the fans really helped out a lot."
When Gilmore drained his third trey with a minute left in the second quarter, the lead was at 31-11 before Monticello got two free throws to conclude the half.
Welch's pep talk during the break?
"To be honest, I went in there and jumped all over them," he said. "There was a few things we could've done better and I didn't want them to be satisfied."
Clearly, they weren't satisfied. After Monticello got a 3 from Benton Singleton to start the third, Gilmore answered with one of his own to start a 10-2 burst.
"Jack was on fire tonight," said Morris, whose all-around game included four assists and a pair of steals.
Ahead 44-24 to start the fourth, the Saints extended the margin to 25 by opening the final frame with a trey and a layup from Patrick Rahuba, who totaled nine points off the bench.
Gilmore sank a turnaround jumper from the side of the key to make it 56-28 midway through the fourth quarter before Fisher made his 3. But the margin was large enough for Welch to send in his reserves for the final minute.
"Really amazing. These guys did a heckuva job tonight and I'm so proud of all of them," he said. "They believed in the scouting report, executed it to perfection and played their hearts out on a big stage."
From here, the stage only gets bigger.
"We've still got work to do," said Gilmore. "We've got to keep moving, keep pounding because this journey's not over yet."