But they found their confidence in the second quarter, picked up their defense and gritted out a hard-fought 57-50 win over visiting Sikeston to shake the SEMO Conference standings.
"This is good for the kids," Central coach Drew Church said. "They've never quit all year. It's a good sign when you get down and can battle back. This is a good game to prepare us for districts."
Sikeston (16-3, 4-2) rattled the Tigers (14-7, 2-3) at the start.
The Bulldogs, who are ranked No. 2 in Class 4, forced numerous turnovers around half court and converted them into easy layups to build a hefty first-quarter lead.
The Tigers finally scored in the first on a Blake Ozbun free throw more than two minutes into the game.
After Sikeston gained a 13-2 advantage, Church called his first timeout to wake up the Tigers.
Central outscored Sikeston 6-2 to end the first and pull within 15-8.
"We weren't used to that pressure," Church said. "We have trouble showing that kind of pressure in practice and we were shell-shocked. But we woke up and figured out we could handle it."
Lane brought the game within 17-14 after a basket and two free throws and Williams buried a 3-pointer to tie game at 17-17.
"That was a big quarter," Holifield said. "We put ourselves in a bad position early missing shots and free throws."
Williams gave Central its first lead with 2:16 left on a deep 3-pointer, but Sikeston took a 26-24 lead into halftime.
The Bulldogs shot a horrendous 45 percent (5 of 11) from the free-throw line and 8 percent (1 of 12) from 3-point range in the first half. That would get no better in the second half.
Central held the Bulldogs to 2 of 24 from beyond the arc on the night, and Sikeston finished the game 8 of 24 (33 percent) from the charity stripe.
"Tonight we struggled," Holifield said. "They defended us well and were smart in what they did. We just didn't shoot well."
The Bulldogs' top 3-point threat, Will Holifield, was out because of a concussion he suffered during his team's game with Scott County Central on Wednesday.
Central went up for good in the third quarter.
The Tigers took a 33-30 lead on a Kevin Casasola trey with 2:56 remaining in the third.
Sikeston closed to 34-32, but Terrance Howard hit a runner at the buzzer to put the Tigers up 37-32.
Central held Sikeston to three field goals and six points in the decisive third quarter.
"We've played the same defense all year," Church said. "It's good to hear these kids talk. We tried to take away things they do well and get them out of their element of going up and down. I was happy with our defense, but we still need to improve."
The Tigers' Zach Boerboom stepped up in the fourth.
The 6-foot-8 junior scored the Tigers' first eight points of the quarter.
"The whole season coach has been telling me to attack," Boerboom said. "I saw they were doubling James and Andrew so I figured it was time to attack."
Church was pleased with his big man's performance.
"Zach has come a long way," Church said. "He stepped it up for us. He took a load and rebounded."
After Boerboom hit a deuce to give Central a 45-38 lead, the Bulldogs' Janeil Hatchett answered with a 3-pointer to silence the Tigers' raucous crowd.
It didn't take long for the Jungle to get rowdy again.
Casasola hit two free throws and a basket to stretch the lead to 49-43 with 2:27 left.
Hatchett got it to 50-48, but that was as close as Sikeston would get.
Central was 14 of 17 from the free-throw line in the fourth.
"We knew coming in they were a very good team," Church said. "Our players have seen the rankings. But it's not like us to shy away. We battled and this is a confidence booster."
"This is pretty big for us," he said. "It helps motivate us, shows we can compete with anybody. But we have to keep our ego down and come out and work hard every day."
SIKESTON (50) -- Juqualin Wiggins 6, Eli Jackson 14, Darryl Howard 4, Janeil Hatchett 17, Martez Evans 5, Terry Jamison 2, Corey Porter 2. FG 20, FT 8-25, F 29. (3-pointers: Evans, Hatchett. Fouled out: Wiggins)
CENTRAL (57) -- Blake Ozbun 2, Andrew Williams 13, James Lane 13, Terrance Howard 7, Kevin Casasola 14, Zach Boerboom 8. FG 14, FT 26-37, F 17. (3-pointers: Williams 2, Casasola. Fouled out: none)