Playing her final game in the gym where she has rewritten the Central High School scoring record books, Cougars senior Kendra Wilken provided one final thrill on Thursday for the home crowd.
Wilken scored a game-high 26 points — eight coming in a key third quarter stretch — as the top-seeded Cougars went on for a 47-29 win over Althoff in the title game of the Class 2A Central Girls Basketball Regional.
Central (25-5), which saw an 11-point lead midway in the second quarter dwindle to 25-22 at halftime when Althoff junior Maggie Reimer hit a 3-point shot at the halftime buzzer. But getting a 3-point jumper from Faye Meissner and eight points from Wilken on a variety of moves to the basket and short-range jumpers, the Cougars outscored Althoff 22-7 during the final two quarters to break the game open.
“With this being the last game here (Central), this means a lot and to be part of this team which has won six straight regionals is really something special,” Wilken said. “Defensively we really picked it up in the second half. We’re just happy to be moving on.”
The win lifts Central into the (Campbell Hill) Trico Sectional on Monday where it will take on Sesser-Valier at 7 p.m,. Sesser-Valier won its own regional title on Thursday with a 64-42 win over Johnston City.
Like it did at the quarterfinals of the Highland Tournament three weeks ago, Althoff managed to stay with the Cougars for a half as junior Kyleigh Vauight and Reimer combined for 19 of the Crusaders 22 points in the first two periods.
But when Central coach Nathan Rueter went to a triangle-and-two defense in the second half, the Crusaders went cold, then wore down.
“I just told the girls at halftime that while they (Althoff) had the momentum, we still had the lead. We just had to get back to what was working well for us earlier in the game,” Rueter said. “We knew Althoff was a good team and that they would be a tough opponent for us.
“I think going to the triangle-and-two may have worn them down a little bit and Abby (Ratermann) and Faye (Meissner) did a good job.”
Vaught led Althoff with 13 points, while Reimer added 11. But the Crusaders dynamic duo simply ran out of gas in the second half against the Cougars defense.
“First of all it was a great effort by the girls. Tonight’s game was similar to the one we played against them at Highland when we stayed right with them for 2 1/2 quarters, then we just got tired,” Althoff coach Nick Knolhoff said. “Down three points at halftime we were in the game and the girls were excited.
“I drew up a play at halftime for a three-point shot to start the second half and we turned the ball over. Then we turned it over again before Maggie Reimer hit a 3-point field goal. Give coach (Nathan) Rueter credit for changing defenses.”
Althoff had more turnovers than points in the third quarter (6-5) but it was the play of Wilken and the defensive effort by the Cougars which turned the game in their favor for good.
Baskets by Breanne Jansen and Wilken off of a pair of turnovers by Althoff increased the Cougars’ lead to 29-22 with a minute gone in the quarter.
Following a Central turnover, Reimer, an athletic 5-11 forward, knocked down her second 3-point basket as Althoff drew back to within four points
But Wilken and Meissner then took over the game. Wilken scored four points on strong moves while Meissner made a 3-point basket and a 12-foot jumper as the Cougars’ lead expanded to 37-25.
Wilken then scored again before Vaught scored her only points of the second half to bring Althoff to within 39-27 after three quarters.
“When Kendra is as active as she was tonight, she’s difficult to guard,” Rueter said. “I’ve played her down in the low post because she’s so dominant, but she can also play facing the basket and she did a great job of not only finishing but also seeing the court.
“I thought she made just some outstanding passes to her teammates tonight.”
Vaught and Reimer scored 24 of the Crusaders 29 points while Wilken, as she has been for most of her career, was the dominant player on the floor as she scored a game-high 26 points.
“Kendra is a great player and Central is the top-ranked team in the state in Class 2A for a reason,” Knolhoff said. “Our girls played hard and while there are tears in the locker room right now, we’re going to walk out of here tonight with our heads held high. We gave a great effort and we’ll be back.
“We’re all juniors. We’ve got everybody back next year.”
Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean