When Central High senior Olivia Wesselmann goes to the free-throw line in pressure situations, she envisions herself being in practice.
Who can argue with her strategy? The 5-foot-5 Wesselmann went 9 of 10 from the free-throw line Monday, including 6 of 6 in the final 53.5 seconds, as the Cougars defeated the Effingham Flaming Hearts 37-31 in the Class 3A Springfield Super-Sectional.
"We do pressure free throws in practice, so I wasn't really nervous," said Wesselmann, who finished with 11 points. "I knew they were going in, so it was all right. I just think I'm in practice. We shoot free throws all the time, so it was just natural."
Central (29-3) will play Nazareth Academy, of LaGrange Park, in the semifinals of the state tournament at 12:45 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal. Nazareth Academy defeated Chicago Bogan 68-47 in a super-sectional at River Forest.
The Cougars placed second in the state tournament in 2015 when they were still in Class 2A. Now they're ready to make their mark in a bigger class.
"This is amazing," Wesselmann said. "We did really good in 2A in the past. This win shows how good we really are."
Effingham finished 31-3.
"It was not a pretty game, but at this point, it doesn't really matter," Central coach Nathan Rueter said. "I'm proud of the kids, proud of their effort. It's been a storybook season. I don't know how it's going to end, but at this point, I don't really care."
The Cougars also got 11 points and 14 rebounds from senior Carson Newkirk. Senior Faye Meissner had eight points and senior Alexis Klostermann came off the bench and scored six.
Central was 14 of 18 from the free-throw line, with Wesselmann leading the way.
"Huge," Rueter said. "It shows the type of clutch performer she's always had inside of herself. It was nice to see her unlock that. She's developed and grown so much from a year ago to now. It's unbelievable."
Effingham got 11 points from junior Carsyn Fearday. Senior Shelby Myers had eight points. The Flaming Hearts hurt themselves with at least six missed layups.
"I'll take the over, unfortunately," Effingham coach Jeff Schaefer said, whose team shot 41 percent (13 of 32). "We just needed to put the ball in the basket. ... We make some layups and it's a different outcome.
"This definitely stings, but we did a great job. I'm proud of how hard we kept playing."
Central led 12-7 after one quarter and 18-13 at halftime, with their only two baskets of the second quarter coming in the final 43.4 seconds. One of them came on a putback by Newkirk after a missed free throw by Meissner.
The Cougars led 29-20 early in the fourth quarter, but the Flaming Hearts went on an 8-2 run that brought them within 31-28 with 2:43 to play.
Central spread the floor, and Wesselmann was fouled. Her two free throws with 53.5 seconds left made it 33-28, but junior Abby Weis hit a 3-pointer to make it 33-31 at the 33-second mark.
Wesselmann was fouled again, and she calmly sank two more free throws to give the Cougars a two-possession lead at 35-31 with 25.7 seconds left. Effingham couldn't convert, and Wesselmann was fouled once more. She clinched the outcome with two free throws with 15.4 seconds to play.
Meissner, who had 25 points in Central's 45-36 win over East St. Louis in the sectional final Thursday in Carbondale, credited Wesselmann. "That was huge. She won the game hitting free throws," Meissner said.
Central, which didn't make a basket in the fourth quarter, shot 31 percent (11 of 35). The Cougars were just 1 of 12 on 3-pointers, but they outrebounded Effingham 28-17 and did a stellar job switching defenders on Fearday.
"They're one of the faster teams we've played against," Fearday said. "We're fast, too, and they kept us with us and played hard-nosed defense. They stopped us."
"We don't ever get outrebounded like we got outrebounded," he said. "That just hasn't happened all year. Credit to them and how hard they crashed the boards."