Don't look now, but here come the East St. Louis Flyers.
East Side, under first-year coach Mark Chambers, reeled off another memorable victory Wednesday as it surged past the Centralia Orphans 62-50 in the semifinals of the Class 3A Centralia Sectional.
After he took over the coaching reins from Fernando Stevenson in January, Chambers said it wasn't about how the Flyers were performing then, but how they would play in March.
"I think it was Jan. 9," Chambers said, recalling the Flyers' 69-61 victory over Alton, his first as coach. "I talked about being more concerned about how we were going to be playing March 9. Fortunately, we're going to be playing on March 9. The guys have really worked hard. They're very resilient and do everything I ask them to do. I'm very proud of the guys."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
The Flyers (16-10), who limited Centralia to 20 second-half points, will play Marion (21-11) in the championship game at 7 p.m. Friday.
Junior Terrence Hargrove Jr. led East Side with 18 points. Senior Joe Reece had 16 points and sophomore Jashawn Anderson had nine, including three key free throws in the fourth quarter that kept the Flyers in control.
"We knew we had to come in here and play hard as a team, because we knew where we were at," the 6-foot-7 Hargrove said of Centralia being on its home floor. "We just focused on getting the win and finishing it off as a team.
"We never stopped (believing). Ever."
The Orphans (24-5) appeared to seize momentum in the final 13 seconds of the half.
Centralia trailed 30-25, but senior Javon Williams Jr., who scored a game-high 32 points, had a backcourt steal that led to a three-point play that made it 30-28. He followed with another steal in the backcourt that resulted in a layup and a 30-30 tie at the break.
"They were a little emotional coming in at the half," Chambers said. "I just told them, 'Keep your composure. ' It was a tie game going into the half, on the road, at Centralia. I'll take that. I told them, 'It's going to be one possession at a time from here on out. Forget about everything that happened at the end of the half.' They did. They came out with laser-like focus."
The Flyers took control with a 9-2 run to start the third quarter to take a 39-32 edge. The Orphans got within 46-43 on a three-point play by Williams with 4:33 left in the games, but East Side recovered with another 9-2 surge that made it 55-45 at the 1:31 mark.
"That's a talented bunch of guys out there," Centralia coach Lee Bennett said of the Flyers, who have won eight of nine since falling to 8-9 on Jan. 19. "They're a pretty good team at this point. They've got it together."
In the end, the Orphans had to rely too heavily on the 6-2 Williams, who was 11 of 25 from the field and 8 of 15 from the free-throw line before fouling out with 20.7 seconds remaining.
"They were high-volume points," Bennett said. "Those long arms weren't there on the free throws, but he gets a little fatigued. ... Javon carries a big load for us out there. He does a lot of things for us, and in trying to do a lot of things, sometimes he tries to do a little bit too much. You have to accept that to some degree.
"For us to beat East St. Louis, which was not impossible, we needed to do a lot of things really well. We made some mistakes. Our margin of error was not great. "
Chambers said the Flyers were focused on Williams.
"We would make it tough for him, but also make it tough for everybody else," he said. "I think we did that. We did a good job on the other guys. That was probably the difference in the game."
No other Centralia player had more than eight points. The Orphans also played the final 4:04 without 6-0 senior Jordan Maines, who injured his left ankle on the endline and had to be carried off the floor.
"It was not an insurmountable deficit at that point," Bennett said. "But then it got away from us a little bit."
Chambers said Marion will be "a really tough opponent."
"They match up well with us," he said. "But we're going to enjoy this on the bus ride back home."
Hargrove said: "We're going to be prepared for them. We'll have a light walk-through (Thursday), a light practice, and come back and get this sectional championship.
"(Chambers) has turned our program around. We can't thank him enough. He's the best coach I've ever had."