It's been eight years now since Indiana high school basketball moved from a single winner-take-all state tournament to four separate enrollment-based class tournaments. For an experiment that was implemented to "level the playing field," the system has produced a striking number of uncompetitive, even lackluster state finals games: Less than a third of all boys class championships have been decided by single-digit winning margins. But this year was different - a couple of yawners maybe, but also the single most exciting game the class system has produced. The 3A Final between Plymouth and Washington was a true game for the ages.
Zeller's big shot
Washington came in the favorite, ranked No. 1 in its class, with a 26-2 record and a Mr. Basketball candidate in 6-foot-11-inch Luke Zeller, signed to play with Notre Dame next season. Besides averaging 19.4 points and nine rebounds, Zeller is an exceptional passer with great all-around court savvy. With their other two frontliners standing 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8, Washington was easily the tallest of the eight teams at Conseco on Saturday.
With no starters over 6-foot-2, Plymouth was not only the smallest team there, but the strangest as well. Over the course of the season, the Pilgrims actually took more three-pointers than two-point shots, and a single player, Kyle Benge, accounted for 43 percent of their scoring. In fact, except for their three main options, no one for Plymouth averaged even two shot attempts per game. It's a testament to 32-year head coach Jack Edison that, all season long, this team knew exactly what they had to do to win - keep moving and keep setting screens for the shooters - and stuck with it.
With this plan in mind, the Pilgrims came out red hot in the first half. Five-foot-eight guard Geoff Sheets nailed five of his first six shots - all threes - to lead the way. Plymouth was up by two at the half, but had needed to hit 10 three-point shots to get there, a pace they seemed unlikely to maintain.
Sure enough, Plymouth's shooting went cold and Washington took an early third quarter lead behind solid play from Zeller and forward Isaac Stoll. By the 7:36 mark of the fourth, Washington had stretched their advantage to 12 and were still up by nine with four minutes left. But it was at that point that Plymouth began to rally, outscoring the Hatchets 11 to 2 down the stretch to force overtime.
When Plymouth's starting point guard fouled out late in regulation, Edison inserted Randy Davis, a freshman who averaged two points, playing in only 15 of his team's 25 games. He very nearly took the game over, scoring 10 points, never missing from either the field or the free-throw line. In the closing seconds of overtime, his team trailing by one, the 5-foot-9 guard made a beautiful curl move to the hoop, executing a perfect up-and-under shot around a defender 11 inches taller. With 1.8 seconds left, it appeared the little-used freshman would be the game's unlikely hero.
Then, following a time-out, Washington inbounded the length of the floor to Zeller, who caught the ball at the 10-second line, took two steps to his left and let fly from about 40 feet. Nothing but net. It was unbelievable - 74-72 Washington.
A game to remember
In the eight years I've been attending the class finals, the 1A, 2A and 3A contests have never really had the feel of state-title games. They're always more like warm-up acts, preliminary contests before the main event, the 4A championship. But this Plymouth-Washington match-up was finally the exception, a game that felt like the world, never mind a state championship, was riding on it. Partially this was due to the high caliber of play, to the fact that, even if it were still the old pre-class tournament, both these teams would have stood excellent chances of making it to the Final Four.
But a lot of the heightened stakes were due to the atmosphere as well, specifically to the huge (and loud) fan blocs, 5,000 strong each, both schools brought. When Zeller's miracle shot went in, the Washington contingent, who seconds before had sat in stunned silence when Plymouth took the lead, now erupted - and it was the Plymouth crowd's turn to stare in disbelief. To a man, the Pilgrim players dropped to the floor, as if they'd been shot. It was perhaps the most tears I've ever seen shed by a losing team. But then, it was probably as dramatic a reversal of fortune as I've ever seen, too. None of the other games Saturday approached it.
Enjoying the rest of the day
The Class A contest was billed as a clash of styles, Lapel's 71-point offensive average vs. Loogootee's 41-point defensive mark. But Loogootee didn't really play their slowdown game well enough to stay close and Lapel didn't adjust well enough to deliver their usual performance either, though they won easily enough, 51 to 40. The 2A game was better, an exciting come-from-behind win by Forest Park over Harding, 68 to 63, but a game full of careless passes and countless missed bunny shots.
The 4A contest featured probably the two best teams in the state this year, Lawrence North and Muncie Central. But if it was the most eagerly anticipated match-up of the day, it was also the most disappointing. Lawrence North led by as many as 18 before finally winning 63 to 52. Muncie Central just could not keep up with a Wildcat team that was bigger, stronger, quicker - who, above all, had Greg Oden, the 7-foot man-child who many have tagged for the NBA in another year. The junior's offensive skills are impressive enough (19.7 points, 9.9 rebounds). But defensively - well, we're talking Bill Russell territory. Oden simply does not allow opponents the lane as a scoring option. If Lawrence North does not win its third straight state championship next season, it will be an upset of epic proportions.
The day did produce some of the usual class-basketball wistfulness. Lapel, for instance, seemed pretty clearly superior to either of the 2A contestants. And, despite having a hunch about the outcome, wouldn't we all love to see how Washington would fare against Lawrence North? They certainly earned a shot at them, to say the least. But in the afterglow of that incredible 3A game, those questions didn't nag quite so much as they usually do. If Zeller's last shot hadn't found its mark, it would have still been one of the best games I've ever seen. As it was, it was nothing short of spectacular. With that one shot, Zeller may well have secured himself Mr. Basketball honors. Without question, he added another lasting chapter to the story of Indiana high school basketball.