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By TERRY GREENE
Mahomet Citizen sports writer
Anytime a team ranked in the Top 10 comes to town or there’s a match-up with one of the conference rivals, it’s going to be a tough week. But the M-S varsity boy’s basketball team held its own, winning one and nearly pulling off the upset in the other.
On January 15, Champaign Centennial – ranked #6 in Class 3A – came to town and clipped the Bulldogs 46-43 in a game that wasn’t decided until the final few seconds. Taking advantage of a superior height advantage, the Chargers built an early 5-0 behind 6’9” Michael Finke and 6’8” Luke Vaughn. The Bulldogs, who trailed most of the first half, were repeatedly held to one shot on offense while Centennial would get three or four attempts as Finke and Vaughn took turns crashing the boards.
But M-S sophomore Conner Diedrich was able to slice through the Charger defense for a lay-up to give the Bulldogs a short-lived 18-17 lead midway through the second quarter. Centennial, behind Jeffrey Lavin’s 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, put the visitors ahead 20-19 at the half.
It was all orange and blue in the third quarter, as junior Sam Hohlfelder and sophomore Conner Diedrich took turns blistering the nets. M-S scored the first seven points out of the locker room to seize its largest margin of the night, 27-20. Patiently spreading out the offense and tenaciously pushing the Charger offense out of its comfort zone, the Bulldogs grabbed control of the momentum and had Centennial on the ropes.
With the Bulldogs up 38-35 and 3:19 left to play, the U of I bound Finke hit a free throw and 6’3” guard Khalil Toombs scored three quick baskets to the Chargers ahead to stay. M-S pulled within one, 43-42, on two free throws from Hohlfelder, but a bucket by Finke off an offensive rebound gave Centennial the breathing room it needed to escape with the win.
M-S Coach Chad Benedict knew his team had come close to pulling off the big win. “I couldn’t be prouder of our effort. There was about a minute in the fourth quarter when the game got away from us, but we controlled the tempo and made the adjustments we needed to in order to keep it close and have a shot,” he said. “And our kids on the bench, whether they played or not, were really into the game, supporting their teammates, and helping out. Everyone did a really nice job.”
Diedrich finished with 19 points to lead all scorers, while Hohlfelder had 18. Finke was the only Charger in double figures with 14. Vaughn had nine points and eight rebounds.
M-S bounced back on January 18 when it notched a convincing 54-39 Corn Belt Conference victory at Pontiac. Up 22-16 at the break, the Bulldogs (5-13, 2-5) routed the Indians (8-7, 4-3) in the second half behind the hot-shooting Diedrich and the inside play of Matt Turner.
According to Benedict, a solid defensive effort for 32 minutes, controlling the backboards, and strong play from reserves were the keys to the win. “We were able to pressure their shooters and get good solid contests on most of their shots. And we did a pretty good job on the glass,” he said. “Our kids did a great job of responding out of a timeout when they pulled within one and we took off. Our bench was very productive on both ends of the floor.”
Diedrich was 10 of 14 from the field and finished with a game-high 23 points. Turner backed him up with eight points and seven rebounds.