The Indians (18-9) had plenty of chances to push out to a double-digit lead against Madison Southern (11-11) in the first half of the 44th District Tournament championship game.
“We played great,” Madison Central coach Allen Feldhaus said. “We were shooting like 58 percent (from the field), but we were only up four. It was because we missed 11 free throws. We could have been up 10 or 15.”
Those missed free throws were a big topic of discussion in the locker room at halftime.
“Coach let us know,” Central senior Kole Browne said. “We had to come out in the second half and hit them.”
The Indians did just that.
Central was 7-of-18 from the line in the first half, but hit 15-of-20 in the second half. That turnaround allowed the Indians to pull away for a 71-58 win over the Eagles on Friday at McBrayer Arena to claim their 25th title in the past 26 years.
Jaylen Davis had 20 points and nine rebounds and Will Hardin had 19 points and five rebounds for the Indians.
Jay Rose had a team-best 14 points for Southern.
Both teams advance to next week’s 11th Region Tournament.
“We just had to focus more,” Davis said of the free throws. “We were rushing.”
Those missed free throws allowed Southern to go into halftime trailing just 31-27.
The Eagles got a spark early in the third quarter and took the lead on lay-up by Blake Simpson and a three-pointer by Trent DeVries.
“They came out and smacked us in the mouth,” Feldhaus said.
The long-time rivals played twice during the regular season. The Indians won both, but had to battle to earn the victory.
Central expected another fight in the district title game.
“They guard. They will get up in you,” Browne said. “We knew we had to go by, but take our time and be smart.”
The Indians reclaimed the lead with a 6-0 lead and never trailed again.
Central led 46-39 after three quarters, then hit 14-of-18 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Browne — who was named the tournament's most valuable player — finished with 16 points, four assists and three rebounds. The senior was also matched up defensively against Southern’s leading scorer all game.
DeVries was averaging 18.2 points a game, but had just seven in the title game.
“He locked him down,” Feldhaus said of Browne’s defense on DeVries.
Southern kept battling and got back within four points (46-42) early in the fourth quarter on a three by Rose.
“They hit 10 three-pointers,” Feldhaus said. “Some of those threes were contested, but they struggled getting past us off the drive. Our position defense was really good.”
Jayden Adams was 3-for-3 from three-point range for Southern and finished with 12 points. Rose hit three three-pointers.
Brett Erslan also had 12 points for the Eagles.
Hardin was 6-of-10 from the field and 7-of-10 from the free throw line.
“He is as steady as running water,” Feldhaus said of the junior.
Central shot 57.9 percent from the field for the game, including 5-of-11 from three-point range.
Braeden Ray had eight points. Traishon Chenault and Kenyatta Hardge had three points each and Trey Skaggs had two points, three rebounds and two assists.
Southern shot 38.5 percent from the field for the game, including 10-of-27 from three-point range. The Eagles were 8-of-13 from the free throw line.
The title was the fourth-straight for Central’s senior class — Ray, Browne, Chenault and Tayson Parks.
“This means everything to me,” Browne said.