For about 50 seconds, East St. Louis senior Joe Reece stood inside the halfcourt line, alone with the basketball.
When it was time to move, Reece was an irresistible force, as he drove to the basket and scored off the glass with 2.6 seconds left to give the Flyers a dramatic 67-65 victory over Central on Tuesday in the semifinals of the Class 3A Highland Regional.
"Once I had the ball, all I did was just have on my mind, 'Last shot, last shot, last shot,'" said the 6-foot-8 Reece, who scored a game-high 23 points. "I looked up and there were eight seconds left. I saw the opening and I took it."
Central, which trailed by 13 points in the third quarter and by eight points in the fourth quarter, tried to call timeout, but the clock expired, the referees headed for the locker room and the teams shook hands.
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"The kid made a play at the end there," Central coach Jeremy Schubert said of Reese, an Old Dominion recruit. "Our kids were calling timeout and I had my hand up. I thought there was a whistle. I thought it was a (foul) and one (free throw). But evidently, there wasn't. We would have had to throw something long and it would be a prayer, but you never know."
The Flyers (14-10), seeded second, will meet No. 6 Cahokia or No. 3 Highland in the championship game at 7 p.m. Friday. Cahokia and Highland meet in the other semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The Cougars finished 13-17.
"It was the first playoff game for a lot of these guys," East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers said. "We battled. We played tough. We made a couple of mistakes here and there, but we live to see another day. We'll get back in the (gym) tomorrow and fix the things that we did wrong."
If that's the case, the Flyers figure to be shooting a lot of free throws. In addition to the ninth-seeded Cougars gaining confidence in the second half, East Side was unable to close the door on them because of a 13-for-24 showing from the line.
But Reece made it OK in the end.
"As soon as it hit the rim and went in, I saw my teammates, I saw my coaches, I saw the fans going crazy," Reece said. "A lot of them ran up on me. It was an amazing experience. ... We got the job done. We're going to get back to work in the gym."
Junior Terrence Hargrove Jr. added 19 points for the Flyers. Junior Camden Wempe had 21 points and four 3-pointers to lead Central, while 6-9 senior Tyler Joest had 20 points, was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line and went over 1,000 points for his career. Junior Simon Thomas chipped in with 11 points.
East Side led 29-27 at halftime, then opened the third quarter with an 11-4 run that made it 40-31. Hargrove's deep jumper from the left corner handed the Flyers their biggest lead of the game at 46-33 with 3:50 to play in the period.
The Cougars, playing before a large gathering of fans, trailed 61-54 with 4:02 left in the game, but Joest swished two free throws and had a putback to make it 61-58 with 2:37 remaining. Hargrove made a free throw to make it 62-58, but sophomore Jackson Haag popped a 3-pointer to whittle the Flyers' advantage to 62-61 at the 2:20 mark.
Central senior Karson Fehrmann made two free throws to tie it at 65 with 56.9 seconds left. East St. Louis then called timeout and set up what proved to be the winning play.
"Joe played really well tonight," Chambers said. "I knew him attacking the basket would give them problems, so we just wanted to let him go attack the basket, and he finished it off for us. It worked out for us.
"The Central team played really well. They played us really tough. They executed really well. Coach (Schubert) had a good game plan for us. We just came out on the victorious side tonight."
Schubert couldn't fault the Cougars' effort or execution. Central shot 51 percent from the field (22 of 43).
"We made plays and got back," he said. "We attacked the rim, made buckets and executed at the free-throw line. Camden really shot it well. That's kind of what we were looking for all year, for somebody to step up and complement Tyler a little bit with the scoring."
East Side shot 62 percent (26 of 42) and had just nine turnovers.