CLINTON - Central Catholic High School's basketball team cut down the nets Friday night - at least what was left of them.
They were likely frayed and hot to the touch after Central shot 71 percent from the field, including 86 percent in the second half, in an 81-48 win over Tri-Valley for the Clinton Class A Regional championship.
The top-seeded and No. 14 state-ranked Saints (24-4) were 18 of 21 in the second half while pulling away from a 32-23 halftime advantage. They finished 30 of 42, including 13 of 15 in a 33-point third quarter.
"It was a matter of not trying to force too much and getting the ball down low," said 6-foot-8 senior Justin Safford, who was among four Saints in double figures with 14 points. "We worked it around and got it down low."
Central's inside trio of Safford, Paul Kabbes and Josh Brent combined for 11 of 15 shooting. However, the Saints were on fire from the 3-point line as well, led by freshman Tom Norton's 5 of 6.
Norton was 7 of 8 from the field overall while scoring a game-high 19 points. He poured in eight points in a 45-second span of the third quarter, extending a 47-27 lead to 55-27. Junior Brandon Dunson added a basket from in the lane to give Central a 30-point cushion with 3:22 left in the period.
The Saints cruised in for their first regional title since 2002 and advanced to Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. Fieldcrest Sectional semifinal against second-seeded Hartsburg-Emden (26-3).
"We got a lot of good shots, a lot of open shots," said Dunson, who had 12 points on 6 of 9 shooting. "We were patient and it worked out well.
"We thought we could pull away. We feel we can compete with anybody. As long as we're playing hard, sooner or later our shots will fall down, and they did."
Fourth-seeded Tri-Valley (23-7) was within 13-11 before Kyle Hundman hit a 3 for Central to end the first quarter. The Vikings were still in the game at halftime despite going 3 of 11 from 3-point range, but never recovered after the Saints scored the first seven points of the second half.
"We felt at halftime we were in pretty good shape," Tri-Valley coach Jon Nelson said. "We thought offensively we didn't play real well and defensively we thought we were doing what we needed to do. They just exploded (in the third quarter). With all the weapons they have, they can explode in a hurry. There was nothing we could do."
Central used fullcourt pressure defense from the outset, seeking to disrupt the Vikings' rhythm offensively.
They hung in for much of the first half, making 10 of 24 from the field, but went 8 of 33 in the second half to finish at 32 percent. Tri-Valley was 5 of 24 from beyond the arc.
"Tri-Valley does a great job of running their man-to-man sets. If you give them a little cushion and they're comfortable, they will chew anybody up," Saints' coach Jeff Wulbrun said. "Our emphasis was to apply pressure and try to get them out of a comfort mode.
"We did a great job with our press. The defense set the tone for the entire game. Our intensity level tonight was at a level we hadn't seen this season."
Central gained a 37-19 rebounding advantage, with the 6-3 Brent grabbing 13 and Safford and the 6-6 Kabbes handling seven each. Senior guard Matt Pelton added eight points and 10 assists.
"Our big guys posted up hard and we did a good job on the boards," Wulbrun said. "Pelton runs the show and makes such good decisions. But everybody's focus and concentration tonight was at a level we hadn't seen."
Grant Jones had 14 points to lead Tri-Valley, which planned to pack in its defense and "hope they didn't shoot well," Nelson said.
"They're a tough matchup for anybody because they're so balanced," Nelson added. "You're going to have to catch them on the right night. They're one of the top five teams in Class A. I don't care what the polls say.
"Our kids had a great year. We did some things and got a lot better as the year went on."