Bob Knight often liked to say that in basketball what you are really playing against is the game itself, that if you learn to execute a set of fundamentals to perfection you will have a good, competitive basketball team. It's always seemed to me that high school ball is the level where this philosophy seems most at home: where coaching strategies and role-players still take precedence over one-on-one moves and slam dunks. Occasionally, they will even win against them, which is what almost happened in the best game at last week's state finals (provided for the second straight year by the 3A contest).
To be honest, context had a lot to do with the game's drama, since one of the participants, the Jay County Patriots, had come out of nowhere, putting together a tournament run to emerge as a true Cinderella - an increasingly rare role in this era of class basketball. But Jay County qualified: Ignored by the media rankings all season, they had no height (only one starter over 6-foot-1) and certainly no stars (their leading scorer averaged 11.6). They finished the regular season a respectable 14-6, but those six losses accounted for the only times they played anyone very good - until the tournament, that is, when they suddenly caught fire and knocked off three ranked teams in a row.
Their opponent was the New Castle Trojans, ranked the entire season. Led by guard Zach Hahn, one of the best juniors in the state, they'd already been invited to play in next season's prestigious Hall of Fame Tournament. Jay County coach Craig Temple knew he didn't have the horses to run with the Trojans for 32 minutes, so decided to shorten the game as much as possible. The Patriots milked each possession for a minute or more, making sure they found just the shot they wanted and usually nailing it. It was smart strategy and beautiful basketball.
But in the third quarter, New Castle's Hahn simply took the game over. There is no other way to put it. The definition of pure shooter, he hit five of seven shots in that third period, three of them from beyond the arc, to give his team the lead. He would finish with 29 of the Trojans' 51 points. Jay County fought valiantly and it was not until the last minute that New Castle's lead was ever more than five. Afterward, Temple would say that, with 30 seconds to go, he still expected his team to win. It was Jay County's first-ever trip beyond the sectional level. A county of 20,000, they sold 4,000 presale tickets, which means at least 20 percent of the population was there on Saturday. And all 20 percent were wearing blue, making their corner of Conseco a lovely sight.
Lawrence North triumphs
A sellout crowd was on hand for the 4A game and a chance to see Lawrence North complete a historic three-year run, during which they went 82-4 and tied a 50-year-old state record for consecutive victories with 45. Whether they are the best high school team in state history is an impossible question, but I'll say this: If there has ever been a better team, I would not want to play them. Greg Oden may be the most dominating big man Indiana has ever produced; he is without question the best defensive center in state history: never out of position, with an uncanny sense of timing. And at point guard, you have a player in Mike Conley, who any other year would probably be the leading candidate for Mr. Basketball.
As great a team as the Wildcats have been for three years, on Saturday they may have given their finest performance. They jumped on top of a very good Muncie Central team by 17 in the first period, shot a blistering 71 percent in the first half and were up 33 going into the fourth quarter. The final score was 80-56. Oden is as good a shot-blocker as you will find (he set a state-finals record with six in last year's game), but if they kept a stat for altering-shots-simply-by-showing-up-for-the-game, his line would be twice as impressive. All season long (and certainly Saturday night), teams blew bunny shot after lay-up, rushing the play simply because they knew he was lurking somewhere near by. On Saturday, he capped his prep career by winning the Trester Mental Attitude Award.
The good and the ugly
The two morning games likewise provided one very good and one very ugly contest. The 2A championship, a rematch from last year of Forest Park and Harding, was almost as entertaining as the 3A game: two talented and well-tooled squads going at each other hard for 32 minutes. The intensity level increased as the game went on, without either side flinching, until the very end, when Harding's shot selection went a bit awry. Finally, Forest Park's front line, 6-foot-8 double cousins Clint and Brandon Hopf, proved too big a load and they prevailed, 61-55. These are a couple of small-school teams that could have done real damage in the old tournament. Forest Park, especially, would have been a very tough matchup for either of the teams in Saturday's 3A contest.
The class A title game was anticipated as a showdown between two potential All-Stars, but neither of them shined very brightly Saturday morning. Hauser's Bobby Jolliff hit just five of 14 shots and Tri-Central's Grayson Flittner fared even worse, going six for 28 while battling foul trouble. Hauser won going away 64-46.