BURLINGTON — This time, the Central boys basketball team couldn’t escape Elkhorn.
And after Elkhorn senior Chance Larson banked in the game-winning shot with about a second left, leaving Central no time to inbound and get off a good shot, there was nothing left to do.
The Elks celebrated in a mob with their student section. The Falcons walked off the floor in disbelief.
Just like that, Central’s postseason run is over.
In a thrilling WIAA Division-2 sectional semifinal before a packed-to-the-gills gym at Burlington on Thursday night, Central led virtually the entire game.
But the Elks — tough as nails — hung around, and after a couple crucial Central missed free throws, Larson’s shot delivered them a 49-48 victory.
In the same round and at the same place last season, Elkhorn led Central by double digits in the second half, but the Falcons rallied to win on their way to a state tournament berth.
Seeking their second consecutive trip to state, top-seeded Central — which entered Thursday 23-1 and had steamrolled through regionals with two victories by an average of 34 points — looked like a runaway train.
But the third-seeded Elks stopped the Falcons in their tracks and ended their season with a 23-2 record and two wins shy of a return to state.
“They played a way better game than us,” said Central senior guard Jaeden Zackery, who finished his stellar prep career 15 points shy of 1989 graduate Tim Cates atop the program’s all-time scoring list.
“We didn’t come out our best. That one’s going to hurt for a few days. We felt like we had a good chance this year. It’s tough to see it end there, but you’ve just got to start a new journey.”
Both of Central’s losses this season came by a point.
“We told our guys, there’s not one thing to hang your head about,” Central coach James Hyllberg said. “We lost two games this year by a combined two points.”
Two of Elkhorn’s three losses entering Thursday came against Central in Southern Lakes Conference play, but the Elks got over the hump this time to improve to 22-3 and advance to Saturday’s sectional final at home against top-seeded Mount Horeb.
The Elks knocked out East Troy, ranked seventh in the final WisSports.net state coaches poll, in the regional finals and have now eliminated fifth-ranked Central.
They did it by keeping the Falcons from getting into transition and holding Zackery — mostly due to the sticky defense of junior Devon Davey — to 10 points.
“We just trusted our gameplan (to be) aggressive,” said Elkhorn senior guard and leading scorer Luke Umnus, who didn’t score until 12 minutes, 48 seconds were left in the game and finished with seven points.
“A lot of teams aren’t aggressive against them, and that’s when they kick their (butts). So we were aggressive, and we finished our layups finally in the second half.”
Said Hyllberg: “That’s what they do. They’re a great defensive team. They move without the ball well, but they’re just very physical, and all their guys play great defense. It’s what we expected. We knew it was going to be a close game.”
In fact, it couldn’t be any closer.
Central clung to a 48-47 lead when senior forward Dylan Anderson missed to the right on the front end of a one-and-one with 47 seconds left. The Falcons dodged one bullet when Umnus missed a 3-pointer from the right wing behind a screen, and Central senior guard Adam Simmons was fouled for another one-and-one with 18.7 seconds remaining.
But he was short on the front end, and the Elks rebounded and called timeout with 17.4 seconds to go.
Elkhorn called a play to get the ball to 6-foot-5 junior Nick Brown in the post. But the Falcons defended the play well, with Anderson yielding nothing to Brown.
Brown swung the ball out to Umnus, who for a moment seemed trapped near the top of the key as the seconds ticked down. But he kept his composure, made a move to his left and found Larson.
Larson slipped through a seam between two Central defenders and banked it in with just over a second left. The Falcons tried to inbound quickly and get off a desperation heave, but time ran out.
“He just had a drive, and he made a play,” Umnus said of the game-winner by Larson, who finished with a game-high 15 points on the shot.
“I can’t believe he made that over two guys.”
Elkhorn coach Josh Skatrud, who played at UW-Parkside under Luke Reigel, credited Umnus for staying poised and getting the ball to Larson.
“That’s a senior who wants to win and made the right play,” Skatrud said. “Once again, a guy who could’ve chucked up a shot and hoped he was the hero, but he made the right play. That’s what I always tell them: ‘If you do that, good things will happen.’”
Of course, the obvious bugaboo to point to for the Falcons were the two missed front ends of the one-and-ones, but Hyllberg would not blame those for the loss.
“We didn’t lose because of those two free throws,” he said. “In a one-point game, one missed rebound here, one transition stop that we didn’t get a couple times, so we’re not going to second-guess one play at all.”
With Zackery being hounded and the Elks all but eliminating the Falcons’ transition game, Central got some clutch performances from others.
Senior forward Joey Michelau finished with a team-high 14 points and eight rebounds, Simmons scored 12 points and Anderson had seven points and seven boards.
As he always does, Zackery impacted the game with more than scoring, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out a team-high five assists.
The Falcons’ lead reached as high as nine at 34-25 when Simmons buried a 3 from the left wing off an Anderson feed for a 34-25 advantage.
But Elkhorn kept chipping away, and the Elks took their first lead of the game at 45-44 on Umnus’ tip-in of his own miss with 2:14 to play.
Zackery put Central right back on top by swishing a pull-up jumper from the left elbow — his last points as a Falcon — and Michelau buried two free throws for a 48-45 lead with 1:08 remaining.
But Larson scored quickly with 1:01 left to make it 48-47 and set up his game-winning heroics.
The careers of 11 Central seniors ended, a class that led the Falcons to three consecutive sectional appearances and a state berth. Until the 2016-17 season, the program had never even reached a sectional final.
“That’s the hardest part, more than this, losing this game, is losing these seniors,” Hyllberg said. “It’s going to sting for a few days, but we just told them in the locker room, we couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments.
“We got as far as we did because of these guys, so it’s going to be exciting to see these guys take off and see where they go after this year.”
Added Zackery, who will be playing somewhere in college next season: “The thing about us seniors, we had a big impact on this school. We got a lot of people to notice who we were. We put us on the (map).
“We got a lot of people to wake up and see who we are. It’s a really good feeling, but at the same time it hurts because it ends.”