With a little under four minutes left in the sectional semifinal on Wednesday, a chant of “We want Althoff, we want Althoff” went up from the Centralia student section at Highland High School.
And thanks to a fast start and faster finish against the Columbia Eagles, the Orphans will get a third chance this season at knocking off the top-ranked Class 3A team in the state.
Junior Dawson Berry and senior Tyriq Billberry combined for five 3-point baskets in the opening seven minutes and Centralia went on for a 59-37 win over Columbia in a semifinal round game at the Class 3A Highland Sectional Basketball Tournament.
Making its first sectional tournament appearance since 2011, the Eagles (22-7) scored the first basket when Drew Huebner scored on an offensive putback. But when Bilberry, a stocky 6-foot guard hit back-to-back 3-point shots, the Orphans were off and running.
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Huebner then scored again but Berry made the first of his three 3-point shots in the first quarter to increase Centralia’s lead to five points. Columbia would get no closer than two points the rest of the night as Centralia fought off every challenge to advance into the sectional title game.
“It’s a challenge we will accept. We’ll go home, work on some things, hopefully get some good sleep in the next 46 hours and get ready to play on Friday night,” Orphans coach Lee Bennett said about the much-anticipated showdown between the two South Seven Conference rivals.
Althoff, which defeated Centralia twice during the regular season, defeated Mount Vernon in the other semifinal on Tuesday.
Columbia trailed just 9-7 with five minutes remaining in the first quarter following a 3-point basket by Jordan Holmes, but a layup by D’Aaron Holmes and a putback by Bilberry increased the Centralia lead to 13-7.
After Eagles senior Korbin Farmer scored, Centralia scored 10 of the final 12 points of the quarter to lead by a dozen — 23-11.
Berry, who paced Centralia with 16 points, led the scoring run with a pair of 3-point baskets.
“We came out I thought, shot the ball well and I thought we played pretty well early in the game. It was a good first quarter and a good start and I thought we finished strong as well. The middle two quarters were sloppy,” Bennett said. “We did a good job on the boards and I thought our defensive effort was very good all night. But we need to clean some things up before Friday.”
Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said he was pleased with the Eagles effort.
The difference in the game, he said, was the Orphans’ quick start and missed opportunities by Columbia.
“To Centralia’s credit they came out and played very well early in the game. They shot the basketball well and were able to get a big lead. They are not a team you want to fall behind because they are so fundamentally sound and they can go into the four corners,” Sandstrom said. “I thought we played hard and the effort was good. But early in the game we had some pretty easy shots we didn’t convert on.
“To have a good chance, we needed to get out to a quick start and we didn’t do that.”
Columbia also had chances in the second quarter when both teams struggled on offense. Combined, the Orphans and Eagles scored just 11 points as Centralia led 29-16 at halftime.
The Eagles however did make things interesting late in the third quarter. With Jonathan Holmes connecting on three short jumpers, Columbia closed to within 35-27 late in the third quarter when senior Jonathan Holmes scored on a strong move to the basket.
But with time running down, Owens was fouled on a 3-point shot and made all three free throws to put Centralia up 38-27 entering the final quarter.
“That was a big play as well,” Sandstrom said. “We had cut their lead to eight and their kid gets fouled on a 3-point shot. It was just one of those things. Centralia is a very good and well coached basketball team.
“We wish them the best of luck on Friday and that we’ll be pulling for them.”
Berry led Centralia (26-3) with 16 points while Bilberry added 13 and Deven Toennies chipped in with 12.