AUBURN – Saturday was officially branded Basketball Day Indiana across the state, with a heavy emphasis on girls Sectional title games and a focus on the official event with a slate of games at Kokomo High School.
But give me the 2:30 p.m. matinee at Lakewood Park Christian. Give that game to me any day, any time and let me fall in love with high school basketball in Indiana all over again. Is that an oversell? Well then you weren’t one of the lucky ones to take in the contest Saturday that really captured the spirit of the day. Fundamental, exciting, nerve racking, sharpshooting and wild: Whitko and Lakewood Park threw down in an overtime affair that was settled just at the final buzzer of the extra session.
Three players scored over 20 points each in the game. 23 total three pointers were made. And at the final buzzer of overtime, it was a Whitko sophomore – William Rickerd – who had the final shot and the final say in a 78-77 win.
“It was an entertaining game all of the way through,” Whitko coach Eli Henson said in the immediate aftermath.
I left in some awe. How can you top that? How can anything be more Indiana high school basketball than what went down in Auburn? Lakewood Park and Whitko are a couple of teams that I have seen and discussed this season, but neither gets a lot of mainstream love. Those are some of the most fun teams. Balanced, urgent in their approach, educated in their execution; it was just two teams putting on a significantly satisfying contest that electrified an afternoon.
Whitko jumped out to a 9-3 lead by taking the fight to the Panthers in transition and then using a tight 2-3 zone to clamp down on 6-foot-7 Caedmon Bontrager at the rim. Keeping the ball out of Bontrager’s hands was a big part of Whitko’s early success.
With 1:58 left in the first half, Bontrager got a huge block, raced down to the other end and instead of forcing up a shot in traffic, he found Carter Harman in the far corner for a triple. It was the kind of heads up play the Panthers needed and a critical basketball after Whitko’s early dominance. Still, Whitko led 34-24 and eventually 40-27 at halftime after Whitko’s Drake Lewis and Lakewood Park’s Aiden Fetters exchanged three pointers late.
The Panthers went back inside to start the second quarter with Whitko’s Mason Streby and Cameron Sapp both in foul trouble as the main defense against Bontrager. It worked quickly as Lakewood Park climbed back, highlighted by Bontrager’s two handed slam on a breakaway to close the gap to 44-40.
“We knew coming into the second half that they were going to increase their pressure and sometimes we don’t handle pressure that well,” Henson said. “It caused us some problems and they got hot in the second half but we seemed to counter everything they were throwing at us.”
Whitko answered, as they did throughout the win, on the hands of Sickafoose and his timely sharp shooting. Back to back three pointers from Josh Pike and Harman closed the gap to two points and then Sickafoose kept having answers with the help of a stealthy offense from Lewis.
At two separate times in the fourth quarter, it was Whitko senior Clayton Ebbinghouse who hit big shots though too. He pushed the lead back to five points at the 5:05 mark and then up to six points with 2:22 left in regulation.
Whitko’s struggles at the free throw line late helped Lakewood Park get back into the flow. Bontrager’s putback basket with 37.7 seconds left cut the deficit to two points. Lakewood Park created chances down in the final minute of regulation.
“I thought our defense played well, its just that it is hard to guard them when you have to worry about a 6-7 kid down low and then their shooters were knocking down everything in the second half,” Henson said.
The Panthers first nearly got a 10 second violation forced against Whitko and then had a chance to tie the game when Lewis missed again at the free throw line in the final minute. Lakewood Park got the final say in regulation, with Fetters screening for Bontrager. There was no look to the 6-foot-7 sophomore, but the defense parted up the middle for a streaking TJ Faur to penetrate right up the gap for an easy lay in to force overtime.
43 seconds into overtime, Sickafoose opened up the scoring with his fifth three of the game and a back and forth extra four minutes. With 13.2 seconds left, Pike went to the free throw line to set up the wild finish. Pike hit both if his free throws to give Lakewood Park a 77-76 lead and Whitko, of course, put the ball in the hands of Sickafoose.
Lakewood’s defense held strong and Sickafoose’s shot was short, heading out of bounds when Lewis flew at the ball to knock it back in under the basket into the waiting hands of Rickerd, who shoveled it up to win the game at the buzzer.
As great as Sickafoose (27 points, five three pointers) and Lewis (25 points) were and as dominant as Bontrager (27 points, 16 rebounds) proved to be a lot, this was a true team game. 11 players scored, nine of whom contributed to the total 23 three point makes for the two teams. Ebbinghouse added 14 points for Whitko and Rickerd had 10 points, eight of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime.
For Lakewood Park, Fetters added 19 points and floor general Pike scored 12.
Basketball Day Indiana indeed. All of the fixings of a classic.