ELKHART – Trailing by 16 points at halftime, Leo’s chances at a first-ever berth in the state finals looked slim to outsiders.
But inside the Lions’ locker room, Coach Cary Cogdell’s team believed.
“The second half we just needed to match their energy,” said Xavier Middleton.
Leo did that and more, stunning South Bend St. Joe with a 61-59 victory, an improbable outcome after struggling throughout the first two quarters.
The Lions, without even a regional title prior to this season, will take on Silver Creek (24-4) in the Class 3A State Championship on Saturday, April 3.
“All season (Coach Gary Cogdell) told us to keep playing no matter the score,” said Blake Davison. “We just believed.”
The Davison was the hero late. With 63 seconds left, the senior nailed a huge three that thrust Leo into the lead by one. After a foul on the other end that saw St. Joe tie the game with a free throw, the Lions worked the final 25 seconds of the clock, with Cogdell calling out a play.
In hindsight, the call was obvious, with Davison given the ball 25 feet from the bucket with room to create. He did just that, lofting up a shot over a pair of St. Joe defenders that dropped in, propelling the Lions in front by two with less than two seconds left.
St. Joe star JR Konieczny was able to get a shot off from just beyond mid-court, but it caromed hard off the backboard.
“It is amazing,” said Cogdell about the program’s first trip to state. “If you look at us all year, we don’t blow people out. We have been in a lot of tight and competitive games and most of them we have won.
“Our players’ will was unbelievable. You have to admit it didn’t look good at half. They were doing whatever they wanted.”
Konieczny scored 20 of the Indians’ first 26 points and outscored Leo on his own in the first half. But Xavier Middleton put the Notre Dame commit on lock down after the break. Konieczny was held scoreless over the final two quarters, a key reason why the Lions were able to climb their way back into the game.
“Xavier’s aggressiveness on him is what we needed,” said Cogdell. “He is such a competitor and he got in (Knieczny’s grill). We had to help on him a lot because he is so versatile and do everything, but we did a phenomenal job.”
Middleton was also huge on the offensive end, hitting a pair of big corner threes in the second half that came in big moments.
“Konieczny is an amazing talent, but my coaches had enough trust in me to put me on him,” said Middleton, who finished with nine points. “I did the best I could to stop him from scoring.”
The twin towers of Zack Troyer and D.J. Allen were both pivotal. Allen got off to a fast start, while Troyer was a little hesitant early against St. Joe’s zone defense. But in the end, both got some big buckets and were able to clear the boards on both ends. Troyer finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, while Allen had 13 and eight.
The Indians finished the first half shooting 51 percent (15 of 29) from the field, but were held to only 29 percent (7 of 24) over the final two quarters. Coach Mark Johnson, older brother of Homestead coach Chris Johnson, saw his career end in front of his brother with a record of 470-343 over 36 seasons.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Cogdell said. “If you can turn the tide in the middle of the game, the team ahead can press a little bit. Sometimes you play your best when things don’t look good. That was definitely us today.”
Leo will now have two weeks to prepare for Silver Creek and will enjoy the experience that no Lions team before has – playing on the big stage one win away from a state crown.
“This is surreal, I cannot believe this,” said Cogdell immediately after the win. “You dream of this as a coach and a player and most people never get the opportunity. It seems like a dream.”
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