CAMP POINT, Ill.
All the practice and preparation led to this.
The Central-Southeastern girls basketball team eyed a rematch with Eureka with the chance to get one step closer to another sectional championship. It's everything Panthers coach Matt Long and the players wanted.
So in the locker room prior to the game, there was no nervousness playing the No. 1-ranked team in Class 2A. There was only an air of confidence.
"They believed it," Long said. "Tonight was the night we were going to shock the state."
C-SE did just that, toppling Eureka 54-48 in the sectional semifinals and exacting revenge for a loss in the regional championship a year ago. C-SE, however, fell short of its ultimate goal with a loss in the sectional final three nights later to finish the season 22-7, but the bitter taste of losing was gone.
It took a year's worth of work to get there, but the culture Long, the 2019 Herald-Whig Coach of the Year, has built within the program goes beyond that.
That culture is to never back down, and it helped build the most successful four-year run in C-SE program history. The Panthers won three regional titles, two sectional titles and a pair of state trophies.
"I think it's important to have those games," Long said. "You know if you didn't play well against a team, you look forward to the next time you play them. You want to do things differently to see if you can be better."
It was the same mindset C-SE had when it made its second straight appearance at the Class 2A state tournament in 2017 and earned a rematch with defending champions Byron. C-SE fell to Byron in the rematch, but it was still a game the Panthers wanted.
"He definitely feeds off those games," C-SE all-state guard Laney Lantz said. "As a coach, what a good leader does is teaching us not to shy away from teams and stick it to those that we lost to the year before. He just has the mentality that this team could be better than us 365 days of the year, but we just have to be better for one night. That pumped us up for that moment."
C-SE's preparation made that possible. The offseason programs were done with more effort, and the players' focus throughout the season was sharper.
The Panthers were 19-6 entering regional play, but they were ready for a run.
"I put one of the hardest Class 2A schedules in front of them that any team in the state could play," Long said. "What made us confident, and this might sound crazy, but every big game on our schedule we played big. When we played a Quincy Notre Dame, an Illini West, St. Joe-Ogden, Quincy High, any big game these guys came ready to play."
That no-fear attitude is what Long wants in his players.
"He definitely instills that in the program," Lantz said. "The effort has to be perfect 100 percent of the time. That's why we have that attitude, because he puts that in us."
Having a target made the motivation burn.
"We kept that in the back of our minds and used that here and there so the kids understood what our goal," Long said. "That was to get back and play Eureka."