It's never easy to take down an opponent on their home floor. Combine that with the added pressure of the postseason, and Effingham found themselves up against a tough test Friday night against the Orphans of Centralia.
But the Hearts wouldn't go away quietly, twice turning a Centralia lead of six points or more into a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. In spite of the late-game heroics, however, the Orphans would do just enough to claim the title, as Hunter Keith's desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer clanged the back iron and Centralia escaped with a 42-39 win.
"It was a hard-fought game," Hearts' coach Ron Reed said. " The kids really left it all out on the floor. I told my assistant that the first one to 40 would probably win."
Centralia looked like they were well on their way to the regional title, leading Effingham 26-19 just moments in the fourth. The Hearts had scored just two points in the third quarter, and endured a streak of over seven minutes without a bucket.
"They played an especially good second and third quarter defensively," Reed said. "They really shut us down."
Effingham could only be contained for so long, as Leighton Lark helped spring a 10-4 run that cut the seven-point Centralia lead to one with just over five minutes to play.
Lark scored the first eight Effingham points of the quarter, beginning on a drive down the middle of the lane for a foul and 3-point play the old-fashioned way. The next possession down the floor he attacked the hoop again, cruising for a layup down the left baseline. His biggest shot of the night, a 3-ball from the left baseline, ignited the Effingham bench and forced a Centralia timeout.
Lark's spurt was cut short however, when he crashed hard to the floor going for a rebound. The 6-6 junior took a seat on the bench with 5:50 to play and the Hearts trailing 30-27. He would not return.
"I thought Leighton really got us going there in the fourth," Reed said. "it's a shame, he hit his head pretty hard on the floor there and couldn't come back."
Keith delivered a floater in the paint to make it a one-point game with under five minutes to go, but Centralia would extend the lead off six straight points from De'Ontre' Cunningham. D'Aaron Owens added one point from the charity stripe, and Cunningham's layup with 1:04 to play made it a 39-31 ballgame in favor of Centralia.
Not done yet, Effingham tried to extend its season in the final 60 seconds, scoring four straight points at the foul line after Owens was whistled for a personal foul and technical thereafter.
Jake Stombaugh connected on the four attempts for his only points of the night to make it 39-35, then Josh Stombaugh was fouled on a baseline 3 with 21 seconds remaining.
"They uncharacteristically helped us out," Reed said. "The foul, the technical and then the three point shot. It just shows you the pressure of this game."
Josh hit 2 of 3 at the line, before the two teams traded buckets to make it 41-39 and a handful of ticks still left on the scoreboard. Centralia's Chase Alcorn missed his first attempt at the line after an Effingham foul, but made his second to create the three-point lead.
Keith caught the ball near midcourt on the final possession, taking two dribbles before firing away on an off-balance attempt that hit the back of the rim.
"We knew it'd be tough to win here," Reed said. "You have to earn it, we had some opportunities."
The Orphans held Effingham to one basket over a 12-minute stretch that ran from the second to third quarter, but the Hearts squandered a number of makeable shots, finishing with a 35.3 percent clip from the floor.
On top of missed chances, the Hearts turned the ball over 14 times on Friday, as Reed believed the Centralia pressure affected his team.
"Their pressure bothered us," he said. "We didn't handle that real well. It took us out of our rhythm there for while."
Effingham looked comfortable at the game's onset, outscoring Centralia by seven points in the first quarter for a 10-3 lead. The Hearts led by as many as 11 in the second quarter, but the Orphans dialed up the pressure to turn the 17-6 deficit into a 17-16 halftime score.
"We came out pretty loose," Reed said. "We shot it in rhythm, then I don't know why, but the second and third quarter we kind of tightened up. They were able to cut it to one at the half which was big."
Centralia came out of the gates in the second half with the same fire, building a five-point lead after three before Effingham made a run in the final frame. The Orphans shot 46.7 percent over the final two periods, including a 10 of 13 mark at the foul line to secure the win.
Effingham fell to 22-7 following the season-ending defeat. Lark's big fourth propelled him to a game-high 14 points, and he was the only Heart in double figures. Josh Stombaugh added eight points behind two 3-pointers in the first quarter.
Cunningham finished with 13 points for the Orphans, and forward Jake Wood added 12. The win improved Centralia's record to 21-8 overall, and the Orphans play on Wednesday in the opening round of the Mascoutah Sectional.
For Reed, the loss also meant that seven seniors played their last game in a Hearts' uniform. He hopes the group, who have been contributors on the varsity level since their sophomore year, can pass the torch along to a stable of younger, capable players.
"They've been with me for three straight years," Reed said. They played a lot of the major minutes, and they deserved that. Our JV team was 16-2, so hopefully the torch can be passed to them."
Effingham 10 7 2 20 -- 39
Centralia 3 13 8 18 -- 42
Effingham-- Lark 14, Jo. Stombaugh 8, Keith 6, Ja. Stombaugh 4, Carie 3, Gardewine 2, Williamson 2.
Centralia-- Cunningham 13, Wood 12, Alcorn 9, Simmongs-Young 5, Obermeier 2, Owens 1.