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By JASON BROWN
Mahomet Citizen sportswriter
The Mahomet-Seymour boys’ basketball team again knocked Rantoul out of the IHSA Class 3A regionals Wednesday but could not carry that momentum into the championship game against top-seeded host Champaign Central at Combes Gym Friday night.
The championship game was a dead heat in the first half, tied at 11 after the first quarter and 22 after the second period.
Junior guard Cory Noe hit two free throws with just more than six minutes left in the third quarter to take the Bulldogs’ last lead of the game at 24-22.
With 5:23 left in the third, Chandler Anderson cut the lead to one with two free throws, 27-26
The Maroons, who boast two Division I prospects, took control of the game after Chandler Anderson cut the lead to one point, making two free throws with 5:23 left in the third quarter.
Central scored five straight points and kept a 3-to-7 point lead for the rest of the quarter.
The Bulldogs fell behind by nine points early in the fourth but kept battling back.
Junior Noah Benedict hit a long three-pointer with 6:13 left in the game to cut the lead to 48-42.
By 5:24 left, the Maroons had extended the lead to ten points, but the Bulldogs cut that lead to six when Noe and Bradley Hamilton hit back-to-back baskets with just more than three minutes left.
“I am so proud of our kids,” said Chad Benedict. “They could have backed down. (Central) had some good momentum plays with the dunks, but we didn’t back down. We came down, and we continued to make plays.”
Noe cut the lead to five with a basket with 2:02 left in regulation and again with a three-pointer from the top of the key with 25.9 seconds left.
But the Bulldogs could not get any closer in the 64-55 loss.
Noe scored a game-high 24 points, 17 of which were delivered in the second half, and added three rebounds and three steals. He scored the Bulldogs’ last nine points.
Noah Benedict followed with a team-high seven rebounds, as well as 14 points and three assists.
“I thought Noah had a really good game on for us on both ends of the floor,” said Chad Benedict.
Senior Bradley Hamilton added eight points and senior Blake Lester finished with five points in their last high-school game.
Seniors Anderson and Ryan Harrison each had a bucket to round out the scoring. Anderson added five rebounds and two steals, and Harrison had two rebounds.
“Each year we encourage our senior class to leave a foundation for the program,” said Benedict. “These seniors have been tremendous. I feel like they have learned from every class before them and they have added into that tradition of Bulldog basketball. These kids can walk out of the program with their head held high.”
Against Rantoul, the Bulldogs had to came back from a 13-point deficit to knock the Eagles out of the regionals for the second straight year.
After a poor first half, Hamilton made two key defensive plays and buckets down the stretch to put the Bulldogs on top of the Eagles.
“We just talked to Bradley about coming out and making plays in the second half and staying positive,” said Benedict. “And I think our guys did a good job of that. Bradley knows. He’s done that time and again. You’ve seen him step up time and time again in the fourth quarter and make plays.”
With 1:39 left in the fourth quarter, Hamilton stole the ball and was fouled on a layup at the other end of the court. He made both free throws to cut Rantoul’s lead to one, 56-55.
Less than 30 seconds later, Hamilton again stole the ball, and the Bulldogs called a timeout.
Anderson collected the rebound then kicked the ball out to Lester, who rotated the ball to Hamilton.
Hamilton’s three-pointer with 43 seconds left took the lead 58-56. It was M-S’s first lead since the first quarter.
“I was open, but I was struggling before,” said Hamilton, “but that was a huge shot to knock down for the team.”
Hamilton finished with 15 points.
The Bulldogs made their free throws in the waning seconds for the eventual 62-58 victory.
To adjust to foul trouble and to change the game’s pace, the Bulldogs played a zone defense for much of the second half.
To come back from the 13-point third-quarter deficit, the Bulldogs had to take it one possession at a time.
“We wanted them to have that attack mindset one possession at a time,” said Benedict. “And give yourself a chance. Because we have been in that position so many times this year, and we just wanted to give ourselves a chance.”
Noe finished with a game-high 28 points, as well as six rebounds, two assists and three steals.
Noah Benedict collected eight points, five rebounds and two steals.
Lester had five points, three assists and three rebounds, and Holt Campion and Harrison added two points each.
“I’m proud of all the guys and what we’ve been able to accomplish this year,” Noe said. “Honestly, if you would have asked me before the season what our record would have been or if we would have played for a regional championship, I don’t know if I could have told you at the beginning of the year that we’d be in the spot we were in right now.”
The loss to Central ended the Bulldogs’ winning streak at 10 games and foiled their attempt at three straight regional titles.
M-S finished with a 22-9 overall record.