| Indianapolis Star
The beauty of the week between Christmas and New Year’s is not limited to an excess of cookies and pie. There are hoops. Holiday hoops.
Some tournaments were crossed off the schedule due to coronavirus. But not all. So on Tuesday morning, I grabbed a couple of cookies for the road and set out to see how much basketball I could pack into a day.
What better place to start than Lebanon, where there are two eight-team boys and girls tournaments underway. Athletic director Phil Levine has played the role of musical-chair coordinator, shuffling teams in when others have been forced to drop out due to quarantine.
Normally, an 11 a.m. holiday tournament setting is not a raucous atmosphere. So COVID-19 can’t steal that from us. But the start of the first-round game between Perry Meridian and Lowell still seems oddly quiet to me. Some things you just never get used to, I guess.
The stars here are Perry Meridian senior Jayden Taylor and Lowell senior Chris Mantis. Taylor and Mantis are friends, having played on the same travel team together. They are also two of the top scorers in the state — Taylor, the 6-4 Butler recruit, averaging 28.0 points through three games, and Mantis, a 6-6 Appalachian State recruit, averaging 29.8 points through six games.
The shootout is all one-sided, at least early. Taylor scores 10 points in the first quarter on a 3-pointer, two drives and three free throws. Mantis, guarded by Taylor, scores five points but he is getting little help from his teammates. Perry Meridian leads 20-9 by the end of the first quarter.
The next eight minutes are a disaster for Lowell, which was 4-2 coming into the game. Mantis goes 3-for-4 from the free-throw line, but that is all of the scoring for the Red Devils. Reggie McDonald, Perry’s senior point guard, scores nine of his 15 points in the second quarter and the Falcons lead, 39-12.
“He just does the ‘steady Eddie’ things that make your team better,” Perry Meridian coach Mark James says of McDonald. “We knew their offense started with (Tyson Chavez) and that pressure he put on him probably disrupted them as much as anything. Reggie did a hell of a job on him.”
Lowell plays a much better second half, but the outcome is in little doubt. Perry Meridian wins, 73-50, in its most complete performance of the season, a season that started late due to positive cases and contact tracing. Perry Meridian is 2-2 and feeling better about itself going into Wednesday’s tournament semifinal game.
“We needed this one,” McDonald says. “After two tough games against Plainfield and Bloomington North, this one boosted our confidence.”
There is still plenty to be learned, though. Like James yelling out to McDonald twice in the second half to jump stop instead of flying though the air off one foot to make a pass. McDonald smiles when asked about it.
“I’m trying to work on it,” McDonald says. “I know I have to slow down and change speeds.”
Taylor finished with 25 points. Mantis has 21. They share a hug and a photo on the court after the game.
In order to make it to my next game on time, I leave the second game at Lebanon after the end of the first quarter. The host Tigers are leading Gary 21st Century, 15-2. When I arrive in Morristown, my next stop, IndyStar photographer Bob Scheer texts me the final score: Lebanon 44, Gary 21st Century 42.
At Morristown, the fourth of four first-round games is underway. It is a battle of Class 2A undefeated teams: No. 7 Covenant Christian and South Ripley, which is just outside the top-10. This is a smaller and much noisier gym, starting with the Covenant Christian bench.
“We talk about trying to bring energy and juice,” Covenant Christian coach Scott Flatt tells me later. “Because of COVID, we’ve gone with a bigger team (in numbers) and we talked with some of our end-of-the-bench guys, telling them they may not play a lot. But you’re going to practice every day with the varsity, you’re going to get better and it’s your job to bring energy. When we bring that energy in practice, it shows in the games.”
Covenant Christian is leading 14-7 near the end of the first quarter when I arrive. But the Warriors are unable to shake the Raiders in the first half. South Ripley, coming in with a 5-0 record, cuts an 11-point deficit to 30-24 at halftime. Covenant Christian, a running, pressing, physical team with several key players coming off a state football championship, has 12 fouls and South Ripley’s two.
South Ripley coach Tyler Theising knew coming in this would be a good test, win or lose. Theising, a former assistant at Shelbyville, Milan and East Central, is in his third season with a core of a team that improved from 10-14 his first year to 14-9 last season. Led by seniors Cody Samples (22.8 ppg, 6.2 assists) and Jaden Peetz (16.2 ppg, 7.6 rebounds) and junior Nick Schwarte (17.6 ppg, 6.0 rebounds), the Raiders will likely be favored to win Sectional 44 at Milan, where South Decatur and Triton Central could also challenge.
But Covenant Christian is a different team than South Ripley had played its first five games.
“Down in southeastern Indiana, we don’t see that type of talent,” Theising says after the game. “We don’t see that kind of physical play.”
Covenant Christian dominates the start of the third quarter with a 19-4 run. South Ripley does not completely go away, using an extended 1-3-1 zone to help spur a run to get back within 12. But the Warriors have too much firepower, advancing with a 69-52 win behind 22 points from senior Trey Flatt. Caleb Crane adds 13 points and Brock Buckley 12.
“We play in a way where we have to adjust to officiating,” Scott Flatt says when the game is over. “South Ripley played zone, so we know the foul differential is going to be there. In the second half, I thought we did a better job adjusting to how the game was called and how we were pressuring. I was happy overall with how we played. We feel like our pressure is something teams don’t see a lot.”
Theising, despite the loss, is happy his team did see it first-hand. South Ripley could potentially play Covenant Christian in the 2A regional in 2 ½ months. Peetz finishes with 20 points and Samples, after a quiet first half, has 15.
“We said, ‘This is going to be a chance for us to see what they are like,’” Theising says. “Don’t get me wrong. This game meant a lot to us. But our kids have to understand, it’s marathon, not a sprint. Us being undefeated, I could tell in their mind they felt like they could get away with some things. I kind of like this loss because it shows them why we get on them in practice.”
As I leave Morristown, both Covenant Christian and South Ripley stay for another game that evening. South Ripley rolls past Waldron in the losers’ bracket, 72-35. I receive a text at 9:43 p.m. that Trey Flatt scored 52 points on 11 3-pointers in an 85-58 Covenant Christian win over Lawrenceburg in the semifinal and went over 1,000 career points in the process. Dang. I missed it. But you can’t be everywhere.
The next stop is North Central, where the Panthers are hosting their annual holiday classic. It has been renamed in honor of former athletic director Paul Loggan, who died on April 12 after he tested positive for COVID-19. Loggan’s death was one of the first to hit home during the pandemic, especially in the high school sports community.
‘My hero was right here.’: Friends, family celebrate ‘Mr. North Central,’ Paul Loggan
There is another reminder as I enter the gym, where North Central’s 5 p.m. game with Park Tudor has just started. North Central’s coach, Jason Gardner, is not there and assistant Matt Green is coaching the team. Gardner is not sick, but is home in quarantine due to contact tracing.
North Central jumps out to a 14-point lead early in the second quarter and it looks like it might be a runaway. But star junior Leland Walker exits the game for a few minutes with a turned ankle and Park Tudor climbs back into the game, led by Ronald Johnson’s 12 points in the second quarter, and North Central’s lead is cut to 32-27 at halftime.
Park Tudor, coming in with a 1-2 record, has struggled from the free-throw line. The Panthers missed 20 attempts in a 50-44 loss to Beech Grove on Dec. 11, the season-opener.
“You don’t want to make too big of a deal about it because you don’t want 15, 16, 17-year-old kids to be too mental about it,” Park Tudor coach Tim Adams says later. “But it’s costing us games.”
North Central, coming in with a 3-3 record (losses to Plainfield, Carmel and Crispus Attucks), leads 45-43 with 6 minutes left. But B.J. Williams hits a huge 3-pointer and North Central’s lead never gets below four points on its way to a 62-55 victory. Walker, looking stronger in the second half, scores 15 of his game-high 22 points. Quinton Boyd, a 6-5, 225-pound senior, has 10 points off the bench.
Free throws are again a missed opportunity for Park Tudor, which made just 6-for-14 from the line. But it is also clear Park Tudor is much better than its 1-3 record shows. The Class 2A Panthers play in the same sectional with Covenant Christian and will be a factor. Johnson finishes with 22 points and senior teammate JC Glenn adds 21, accounting for 43 of the team’s 55 points.
“We’re close,” Adams says in the locker room after the game. “We’re coming up against some 4A schools here and it’s coming down to the last possessions of the game. We know these types of games now that hopefully we can look back at the end of the year and know we’ve learned from and grown.”
I’m tempted to stay and watch the next game between Hammond and Avon, but saw both teams a couple weeks ago and hope to see Avon again soon in the Hendricks County tournament (Hammond wins, 77-68).
Instead, it’s back to Lebanon where I started the day.
I see Pike coach Bill Zych and his wife, Janet, when I reenter the Lebanon gym. Zych has been watching the Western-Metropolitan game and alerts me to a guard from Western that has 22 points and six 3-pointers after the first quarter.
OK, that sounds interesting.
The guard is Western senior Kyle Sanders. He has 29 points by halftime and 39 with 2:11 left in the third quarter. Sanders, 8-for-10 from the 3-point line, is one 3-pointer and six points away from breaking the school’s single-game records. But the score is lopsided and Western coach Mike Lewis knows there are two games ahead for his team on Wednesday. His starters, Sanders included, are done for the night.
“Coach told me, ‘We’ve got two games tomorrow so take a breather,’” Sanders says after the game.
Lewis calls Sanders, “the best leader I’ve coached.” And he stays engaged in the game, along with the rest of the regulars, as the reserves finish off a 75-51 victory that was not nearly as close as the final score. I ask Sanders about his coach’s comment.
“I think my dad instilled that in me,” Sanders says, “to just have a positive impact. Then coach Lewis, freshman year, always talked about having a positive impact on others. I think it stems from those two guys.”
Sanders laughs when I asked him if he’s been shooting like that all season. Western, now 3-3, had lost three consecutive games after a virus-related stoppage for two weeks.
“Coach brought in the stat sheet and we were all shooting below 30% from the 3-point line,” Sanders said. “It was nice to see the ball go in a couple times early. I just kept finding seams in the back of their press and I got open shots, thanks to my teammates.”
Sanders, a standout golfer, could play both sports in college. Indiana Wesleyan golf coach Kyle Bloom is there to talk to him after the game, along with basketball assistant Jeff Clark.
Western, a late addition in the tournament after New Palestine was forced to drop out, advances to play the winner of the final game of the night between two teams I had not seen in person yet: Pike vs. Mooresville.
Pike is able to get a little separation in the first half, leading 17-10 midway through the second quarter. But Mooresville closes the half strong and trails just 21-20 at halftime. Miles McGowen, a 6-7 senior, is giving Pike problems inside and will finish the night with 17 points and eight rebounds. Pike senior and Missouri football recruit Kyran Montgomery is out due to sickness.
“That’s the first game we saw a team that was really big inside and we couldn’t combat it with our quickness,” Zych says after the game. “They did a good job on their zone. We got a couple steals that kind of got us going a little bit in the second half.”
Pike, leading 33-30 at the end of the third quarter, pulls away with a 12-3 run to start the fourth and wins, 55-43. Sophomore guard Devon Woods is a catalyst for the late Pike run and finishes with 10 points, three assists and two steals. Ryan Conwell has 16 points and Eddie Jones adds 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Pike normally starts each season with a tournament in Illinois. That was wiped off the schedule this year. But Zych likes the opportunity to play in a tournament setting.
“(Wednesday) will be kind of like a regional,” Zych says. “You don’t really have time to prepare for the opponent. It’s not totally like going to Rockford, where you can get away and build some chemistry, but I like the format we’re playing. It’s quick preparation time.”
It’s a few minutes after 10 p.m. when I leave, just after the Mooresville bus takes off. After 11 hours, three sites, and at least parts of six games, my holiday basketball appetite is satisfied for one day.
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at 317-444-6649.