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CARROLLTON - Nathan Walker and his teammates were ecstatic at halftime.

The Carrollton Hawks had the West Central Cougars, the No. 6-ranked team in the Illinois AP Class 1A poll, on the ropes at halftime trailing 35-34 on the road.

However, the upset bid fell through in the second half.

The Cougars would go on a 16-4 run to build up a 10-point third-quarter lead and never looked behind as they knocked off the Hawks 67-52 in a Western Illinois Valley Conference contest in Winchester on Friday night.

Carrollton falls to 10-13 and 2-4 in the WIVC.

“We got close a couple of times. I really thought up until the end of the third [quarter] we were within striking distance,” Carrollton head coach Matt Goetten said. “A couple of things don’t go our way, and we were never able to close that gap again. [West Central’s] rated top ten in the state for a reason. You can’t get too far behind them and expect to crawl out. They’re a good enough team where our athleticism doesn’t bother them as much as some other teams.”

Just like Ethan Brannan on Tuesday night against Greenfield-NW, Walker would notch a career-high in points as he tallied 23.

“We played right with them in the first half, and I thought we were going to do it. I’m not going to lie,” Walker said. “We had a lot of excitement going into the locker room going into the second half. I scored ten in the first half, and it really motivated me to keep going and keep driving.”

Junior forward Hunter Flowers finished with nine points, and senior Gabe Jones added eight.

West Central head coach Ryan Sichting wouldn’t mind if he didn’t have to scheme for the Hawks again even if both teams come across each other in the playoffs.

“They’re a scary team, and I wouldn’t want to play them come tournament time because they’re so athletic and when they make perimeter shots they’re extremely tough to beat,” Sichting said. “I can’t give them enough credit. When they’re locked in like they were tonight, they’re a team that can beat anyone on their schedule. They played extremely well throughout the whole game, but especially that first half they were right there with us.”

The dynamic junior duo of Gabe Cox and Cole Howard led the Cougars offensively. Howard, a 6-foot-5 center finished with 22 points and Cox, a point guard, recorded 21 points. Freshman forward, Ryan Moore scored ten points while Drew Evans and Aaron Brown each added seven.

Howard was especially a constant threat whenever he was on the floor, but sat for large periods due to foul trouble. The Cougars were able to get by without just fine, which showed another reason why they’re a top-ranked team in 1A.

“When one of you’re top guys like Cole gets in foul trouble most teams would struggle, but I’ve been preaching all year long next guy up,” Sichting said. “I’m super proud of our guys. I’ve told our guys all year long everyone’s going to come prepared to play West Central and no one's going to take us lightly.”

The Cougars move to 20-5 and 9-0 in the WIVC needing victory over North Greene next Friday to clinch the WIVC title.

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Walker scored the first basket of the game, but the Cougars would go on a 7-0 run and led by as many 9-3 early on. However, the Hawks stormed back and managed to tie the game at 17 all before a layup by Howard put West Central on top 19-17 heading into the second frame.

Midway through the second quarter, Howard picked up his second foul and a short while after he sat for the rest of the half. That allowed Carrollton to have a little more freedom of getting inside while defensively it forced the likes of Cox and Moore to go to work more often.

The Hawks wouldn’t let the Cougars get out by more than six points and then closed the gap late in the half by going on a 7-2 run. Freshman Grant Pohlman scored on a fast break layup, and then Flowers added another basket to cut West Central’s lead to one at 35-34 heading into halftime.

Just like at the start of the game, Walker gave the Hawks a two-point lead, but this time by nailing a three-pointer from the baseline to provide them with a 37-35 advantage.

The feeling of a possible upset was flowing in the air, but Moore would pull Carrollton back to reality with back-to-back layups to his team the lead for good at 39-37. That would ignite a big quarter for West Central as they outscored the Hawks 18-9 and led 53-43 heading to the fourth.

The Cougars made one three-pointer in the game, but the distinct difference in the game was their ability to dominate the boards offensively and defensively.

“That’s something we’ve been stressing all year long in practice,” Sichting said. “We have to continue to get second, third chances, and battle. Moore and Howard have done a great job rebounding for us. Between those two guys they’ve been rebounding machines for us.”

“We talked about that at halftime, and it was a point of emphasis in practice,” Goetten said. “For as skilled as they are and they are skilled, they’re a very good rebounding team.”

Carrollton is in the midst of a gauntlet of a schedule through the first week of February.

Today they wrap up the Beardstown Tournament in the fifth-place game against Rushville-Industry at 9:00 a.m. On Monday they travel to Litchfield to face the Purple Panthers in a rescheduled game and then head southeast to Pleasant Hill for another make-up game on Tuesday. The following night they host Jersey, and on Friday the Hawks play Calhoun at home.

Despite the difficult timing of the games, Walker and the Hawks feel as they’ve turned a corner this week and are moving forward in a positive direction with two weeks left of the regular season.

“We started off a little rough this year and just being able to play with [West Central] shows a lot for our team and how far we’ve come this year,” Walker said.

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