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Burlington Central's Kayla Ross (right) looks for a teammate to pass to while she stole a loose ball from Hampshire's Jen Dumoulin during the fourth quarter of their Class 3A Regional game Wednesday evening in Burlington. | Michael R. Schmidt ~ For Sun-Ti

At the outset of Wednesday’s Burlington Central Regional Class 3A semifinal against rival Hampshire, the top-seeded hosts looked a great deal like the freshman and sophomore-dominated team that they are.

The initiation to win-or-go-home basketball took about 29-1/2 minutes. By the close of the game, the Rockets had ice in their veins.

Burlington Central saw what was once a 12-point second-half lead whittled to three, but stood its ground and then hit 10-of-12 free throws in the final 2:39 to put away a 36-26 victory to make Friday’s 7:30 p.m. championship game against second-seeded Plano.

“We were just nervous because it’s just like half the team’s first regional and it’s against Hampshire, our rival,” said Central senior Camille Delacruz. “We practice free throws a lot. We knew we had to knock them down at the end.

“We calmed down and the nerves were gone by then.”

Central (26-4), which has set a school record for wins, had struggled to an 18-14 halftime lead against fifth-seeded Hampshire (11-17) before holding the Whip-Purs scoreless the first 4:15 of the third quarter while scoring eight points for a 26-14 lead. From there, five points by Hampshire’s Jen Dumoulin and four from Emma Benoit helped the Whip-Purs get in position, and it was a one-possession game with 3:25 to go after Nikki Dumoulin’s steal and three-point field goal.

But when Benoit tried to drive inside, she found Central freshman Shelby Holt waiting. Holt, known more for her offensive skills, reached and stole the ball, and the Rockets then began a procession to the foul line.

“She sees Camille and Kayla [Ross] doing it and she kind of took a chance, and it worked out in our favor,” Central coach Mark Smith said.

Alison Colby started the free throw parade with two with 2:39 left for a five-point lead, and after two missed Hampshire shots, Delacruz made two. Delacruz and Ross went on to make 3-of-4 each and Sam Pryor also made two in the final stretch.

Central got a game-high 11 points from Ross and eight from Holt, but after making three straight three-pointers to start the game, the Rockets missed nine straight. A 14-5 lead after a quarter made it look like it would be a blowout, but that never materialized.

“No matter what happens, the first game in the playoffs doesn’t go like you want it to go, but a win is a win,” Smith said, after pointing out three of his mentors, including former St. Charles coaching great Ron Johnson, had often said this is the case.

“We knew they were going to play us hard for 32 minutes, but as long as you continue on to the next game that’s the goal.”

Hampshire had 14 points and five rebounds from Jen Dumoulin in her final game, but 10-for-34 shooting from the field against Central’s tenacious defense proved too much to overcome.

“I’m very proud of my kids,” Hampshire coach Ed Haugens said. “A few rebounds here and there that we didn’t get and a few shots here and there that didn’t fall ...

“It’s a tribute to how far our kids have come since the beginning of the season. We were down by 25 at halftime and lost to them by 12 the first time.”

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