BLOOMINGTON - Coach Linda Hocker was counting on a few outside shots falling in the Central Catholic Class A Sectional semifinals Monday.
When they didn't for her No. 7-seeded El Paso-Gridley High School girls basketball team, things fell into place for No. 2-seeded Central Catholic, which advanced with a 43-24 triumph.
In Monday's first semifinal, top-seeded Flanagan used a 12-4 surge the final 4:02 to rally past No. 5-seeded Illini Bluffs, 65-59, and reach the state's round of 32 for the first time.
Southern Illinois volleyball recruit Kelsie Laughlin led Flanagan with a season-high 24 points.
The results set up a rematch between Central (18-11) and Flanagan (26-3) in Thursday's 7:30 p.m. sectional final where the winner advances to the Illinois Wesleyan Super-sectional at 7:30 p.m. Monday to face the PBL Sectional champion. Central defeated Flanagan Jan. 7, 73-70.
EPG's point total was the second fewest Central has allowed this season behind a 58-19 win over Rantoul Dec. 1.
"To hold a team to 24 points is a great job," said Saint coach Debbie Coffman. "El Paso the first half really took it to us."
Stacey Miller, who missed her first seven shots, led Central with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Teammate Amanda Murray added 10 rebounds and eight points.
An 18-foot shot by Amber Fennell to open the second half pulled EPG into a 16-16 tie, but it was all Central after that.
The Titans shot just 17 percent from the field (6 of 36) and committed 26 turnovers compared to 13 for the Saints, who shot 30 percent (14 of 47).
"We went stone cold the second half," said Hocker, whose team shot 15 percent (3 of 20) the last two quarters. "We missed some easy ones."
The Saints shot 19 percent from the field the first half.
"We were definitely struggling in the first half on our shots," said Miller, who scored 14 points the second half. "At halftime I kind of brought the girls together and told them to focus and calm down."
Central took a 29-20 lead into the fourth quarter.
"I thought we really took control in the third quarter and that led us into the fourth quarter and kept us motivated," Coffman said.
EPG star Amanda Kowalski had 13 points and 13 rebounds despite constant double teams. Freshman Kindi Bullard grabbed nine rebounds.
"We thought the game got awfully physical, but we told the kids to play through it," Hocker said.
Illini Bluffs found safe passage through Flanagan's full-court press well enough to build a 49-40 lead with 3:00 left in the third quarter.
"We just needed to calm down," said Laughlin, who watched her team force the Tigers into nine of their 19 turnovers the final 11 minutes.
Those extra possessions helped Flanagan dominate that stretch, 25-10.
"I think we handled that (press) very well for almost three quarters, but I think it just started to wear on us a little bit," said Illini Bluffs coach Jim Robertson. "When they made that run, we were out of juice to counter."
Illini Bluffs shot 63 percent from the field the first half, but finished at 52 percent.
"In the fourth quarter when things got tight, they started coming up short on some shots," said Flanagan coach Jeff Sprouse.
The Falcons had a two-point lead with 41 seconds left when Anna Jones sank two free throws to make it 63-59. Laughlin finished the scoring with a layup at the buzzer.
Flanagan's Brittany Leonard, who sat out half of the third quarter with foul trouble, scored nine of her 15 points the final 11 minutes.
"It was a struggle (with Leonard out), but that's why we worked to have depth all year," Sprouse said.
The 6-foot Laughlin finished 10 of 16 from the field and sank two 3-pointers. She also had a team-high seven rebounds while her 6-1 sister, Megan, added 10 points, five boards and four blocks.
"I scouted Flanagan four times and I never got to see either one of their two big girls play," Robertson said. "We were coming in a little blind."
Jessica Vaughn led Illini Bluffs with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Cortni Greenleaf added 14 points and 11 rebounds.