Defensive pressure enables Central to knock off Southeastern for second time in six days

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AUGUSTA, Ill. — Second verse, same as the first.

For the second time in less than a week, the Central boys basketball team dispatched rival Southeastern and on the same day both teams ended up in the Class 1A state poll nonetheless.

Central’s 39-33 victory Wednesday night came in a grueling chest-to-chest contest where defensive stands ruled the evening and every possession carried a sense of importance.

Central coach James Barnett’s club is now 11-3 after the back-to-back victories over Southeastern and entered the state poll in a tie for No. 6. Southeastern, which was the No. 1-ranked team in the first poll released in December, now sits at No. 5.

The Panthers beat the Suns 51-43 on Dec. 30 in the third-place game of the Macomb-Western Holiday Tournament on the campus of Western Illinois University. 

“I’m glad to see we were able to battle through a tough game like this,” Barnett said. “We were patient on offense, but the key for us was our defense. I think we were able to control the (game’s flow) because of our defense.”

For much of the game, and especially in the second half, Central was content to work for time-consuming, high-percentage shots. In turn, that helped keep the ball out of the hands of Southeastern all-stater Danny Stephens. And when the 6-foot-7 Stephens did have the ball, he felt immediate and sustained pressure that permitted little room to roam.

Stephens, who scored more than half (17) of Southeastern’s points, praised Central’s effort.

“We haven’t seen a lot of defensive pressure like that,” said Stephens, a senior who scored all 12 of Southeastern’s second-half points and led the Suns’ rebounding effort with six. “It was frustrating, but we need more games like that to get ready for the (postseason) tournament.”

Southeastern is now 15-3.

The Panthers forced nine Suns turnovers in the fourth quarter to repeatedly turn back any would-be Southeastern rally after Central took a 33-30 advantage on a Nick Moore 3-pointer early in the period. 

“Turnovers …,” Suns coach Brett Ufkes said. “How can you win with turnovers in the fourth quarter of a close game? We have to be smarter. We have to get better, both individually and collectively.”

Moore led all scorers with 21 points. sinking a game-high five 3-pointers.

Neither club made a field goal during the final 3 1/2 minutes of the game. Central scored the last four points, all on free throws from Moore, a 6-foot junior.

“Nick came to play, and the rest of the team fed off of him,” said Barnett, whose team led 15-11 and 23-21 at the first two quarter breaks before the Suns pulled even after three at 30-30.

Moore’s balanced effort saw him score in every quarter and hit at least one 3-pointer in all four periods. He had 11 points in the first half and 10 in the second half.

“I always look forward to playing at Southeastern,” Moore said. “It’s a small gym and it’s always packed.”

Moore admitted he felt he had a hot hand early in the game.

“I could feel things clicking in the first quarter (when he scored eight points),” he said.

Moore, too, lauded the work of his team’s defense and the effect it had on Stephens.

“We doubled up Danny to try and keep him from shooting,” Moore said.

Stephens did manage to make three 3-pointers and record a breakaway dunk. His most impactful quarter was the third when he scored nine points.  

While Moore triggered Central’s outside game, Carter Eyler anchored the Panthers’ effort inside the paint. The 6-foot-4 Eyler finished with a game-leading seven rebounds and added eight points. Isaac Genenbacher also produced eight points for Central.

Owen Rigg and Carter Hitz each had five points for Southeastern.

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