Is Snider really the best boys basketball team in the area?
That has been the question for me since Outside the Huddle’s preseason top 10 countdown reached the No. 1 spot. It has been even more of a conversation since yours truly predicted the Panthers to win their season opener by two points somewhere between 36 and 48 hours ago, depending on when you are reading this.
I was questioned by plenty. Current area players, former area coaches: Is Snider for real? Is picking them a disrespect to others who feel they had better previously proven themselves?
There was no other choice than to spend by Tuesday night in Kendallville. I had to see if I was right. I was either going to be very right or very wrong, right? So let’s get weird and take a trip up IN-3 for Snider’s 63-60 win over East Noble on Tuesday night.
“We’ll go back and look at the tape and see that we guarded really sub par for most of three and a half quarters,” Snider coach Jeremy Rauch said. “I still think we are scratching the surface of how good we can be. It probably does set a precedent a little of how good we can be, but as always we’ll just go have fun getting better tomorrow.”
The Panthers controlled the perimeter early, with the ball comfortably in the hands of junior Jayshawn Underwood and off the scoring touch of sophomore Michael Eley, who had eight first quarter points. Both of these guys were thrust into the spotlight a year ago and looked like completely different, poised players as this season started. But on the flip side, East Noble’s Ali Ali and Brent Cox were a dominating force inside, making the first half a tale of two different games.
Although Snider led 18-14 at the first quarter break, Ali’s inside game got Dillon Duff and Isaac Farnsworth into foul trouble and just into the second period, it was freshman Jaylen Lattimore that was forced onto the senior Division I recruit. That is not a match up that the Panthers wanted to see and helped highlight the need for junior Cleevas Craig, a transfer who did not play Tuesday due to not having the mandated number of practices in. Although Farnsworth picked up a third foul in the quarter, Snider was able to counteract everything East Noble did and lead by five at halftime.
“When your defense is bad your ball pressure is bad and our post defense and pressuring the ball needed to get better,” Rauch said. “We just tried to jump to the ball and fight through screens instead of trailing.”
At halftime, East Noble clearly made some conscious efforts to get into the paint more in the second half. Ali and Cox came out strong and Hayden Jones did a good job of beating his defenders off the dribble to get deep inside or pull up from 10 to 12 feet out with a smooth jumper. Jones’ intense third quarter propelled the Knights back into the lead with momentum fully in their favor. They led 48-44 heading into the final quarter.
Like I said in Monday’s game prediction: this was a slug fest. And a tight one.
With around 3:30 left, Jordan Moore found Airyan Thomas on a fast break. Instead of forcing a layup that could have easily been blocked or deflected by East Noble’s Jones, Thomas made a nice extra pass under the basket to Eley for a layup. That conversion was a good highlight of unselfishness in this Panther team, who went 11 players deep on the night.
Playing 11 players, as he said he would in the preseason, alluded to Rauch’s comfort with where this team is already. More than that, there was even a moment when the Panthers had two freshmen, two transfers and one returner on the court. There certainly is confidence that this group is prepared enough to take on a team that only had three losses last season and put anyone on the court to match up with them.
“Everybody just battles in practice and as long as they play that hard in a game, the other team is worn down,” Rauch said. “And I don’t know how much we wore them down, but I think there was a little bit of juice left for us at the end. We want depth to be something that is a strength of ours.”
A highlight of those match ups came late when Rauch switched Underwood onto Ali defensively. Every move Ali made, the 5-foot-10 — we’ll call that a favorable measurement — Underwood was all over his 6-foot-6 frame. If Ali managed to put the ball on the ground, another Panther was there to double down and cut him off. But Underwood’s smaller base and his scrappy defensive play made putting down a dribble significantly dangerous.
“I thought we made a huge move in putting Jayshawn on Ali. He did a phenomenal job. You can credit Ali Ali because he had a heck of a game, he;s a mismatch problem, but really as a team, I thought we rebounded at the end pretty well,” Rauch said.
Now I won’t lie, when Ali drilled a three pointer with 1:52 left, I was certainly sure that the Knights had taken the final advantage. Snider isn’t coming back from this, right?
I was wrong about that. The Knights did not score again as the Panthers closed out the game on an 8-0 run, taking the lead for good with 46.9 seconds left as Jones turned the ball over to Duff, who took it the length of the court to score. Eley added a pair of free throws and we had an answer.
Yes. Yes, I think that Snider is the best boys basketball team in the area today. This game was justification.
Ali finished with 26 points to lead all scorers, while Cox added 18 points and 16 rebounds to to their heavy inside effort.
Snider was led by Eley’s 23 points, followed by 16 from Thomas and 14 from Duff. Both Eley and Thomas hit four three pointers to lead Snider’s 10-of-20 shooting from three point range. Jon Barnes Jr. and Lattimore also each hit one from deep.
As for how big this win is, I will say this: it is of my opinion that this is the biggest win of Rauch’s two-season, one-game tenure at the helm of the Panthers. Rauch laughed at me a little bit in the postgame.
“Oh I don’t know, that North Side one was pretty good,” Rauch laughed as he recounted the 2016 overtime buzzer beating win over the Legends. “It was a fun win for tonight. We tell them that we work too hard to not enjoy winning. Focus on the next one, enjoy this one tonight and we’ll be back to work tomorrow.”
But to me, this was Rauch’s team. This was his vision. This was a game not just that he and the Panthers wanted to win, one I really think that for the long term internal and external vision of the program, they needed to win.
So they won. Just like I said they would. Isn’t that weird?
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