With a flair for the dramatic in big games, Grace Yaunches lit the offensive flame of the Central Cougars on Monday at the Class 2A Jacksonville Super-Sectional.
All-state center Kendra Wilken kept it burning all night long.
The dominant Class 2A post player in the Southern IIlinois, Wilken put on an impressive performance as she scored 34 points and added 21 rebounds as Central defeated Athens 68-46 at Illinois College.
Using her size advantage of more than 4 inches against the Warriors’ tallest player, Wilken scored at will inside the paint, while Yaunches connected on four-of-five 3-point shots for Central, which built a 16 point, 36-20 lead at halftime.
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Athens (29-4), getting 11 points each from Madi Epperson and Emily Nordseick, cut the Cougars’ lead to 10 points late in the third quarter. But Wilken scored eight points in a three-minute span to clinch the Cougars’ victory, which sends them into the Class 2A State Tournament semifinals on Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal.
“It feels so great. We’ve been wanting this and working hard all season to get to the state tournament. To finally know that we’ve done it is a great feeling,’’ a smiling Wilken said. “I had the size advantage inside tonight and I had to take advantage of it. Their (Athens) guards were very quick and so I had to remember to keep the ball up high so they couldn’t knock it away.’’
The win lifts Central (30-3) into the state semifinals at 8:15 p.m. Friday, when it will play Elmhurst IC Catholic. Elmhurst defeated South Holland Seton Academy 42-29 to win the River Forest Super-sectional on Monday.
The victory also got a rare smile out of Cougars coach Nathan Rueter, who after getting a victory hug from his wife and young son, allowed himself at least a minute to enjoy the accomplishment of his team..
“I’m happy because I know what it means to the girls and how hard they’ve worked to get to this point,’’ Rueter said. “Kendra had a great game and you’ve all seen what Grace (Yaunches) can do in big games. It seems like the bigger the game, the better she plays.
“But I was happy that we had several players step up and make big plays for us. They all had a part in this. Now, we’ll enjoy this one tonight and get ready for Friday.’’
While Wilken was the dominant player on the court for four quarters, it was Yaunches who set the tone early. The 5-foot-8 guard nailed her first 3-point shots as the Cougars jumped out to an early 17-7 lead.
Reserve guard Breanne Jansen added a 3-point basket for the Cougars, who led 20-10 after quarter. But by Yaunches nailing the early 3-point baskets, it paved the way for Wilken and Kaylee Schrand to operate inside.
“I don’t know what it was. Honestly I hadn’t been shooting the basketball very well lately. It felt good to hit the first one and get a little confidence,’’ Yaunches said. “I just wanted to help the team.
“This feels so good. We wanted this one after losing in the super-sectional a year ago against Teutopolis. That left a bad taste in our mouths. This one feels much better.’’
Given more room to roam inside with Yaunches and Jansen combining for five 3-point baskets in the first half, Wilken went to work more in the second quarter as she scored 10 points as the Cougars stretched their lead to 36-20. A basket by Carly Albers put the finishing touch on a dominating Cougars first half performance.
“She (Wilken) is a great player and we knew that coming in. Our tallest player is 5-10, and when you’ve got a player of that skill level who is on her game the way Wilken was tonight, it’s going to be tough to defend,’’ Warriors coach Jay Herford said. “What we weren’t counting on was Yaunches shooting the ball like she did tonight.
“It just made guarding Wilken that much more difficult.’’