INDIANAPOLIS – I said this same thing after the semi state game and I’ll say it again two weeks later after the state finals: the downright audacity of Leo to never stop fighting is awe inspiring.
Pressure has a unique way of manifesting itself. It either exists or doesn’t purely based on the mindset of individuals.
Leo never gave in to that pressure before or during Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game, where they ultimately fell 50-49 to Silver Creek.
“It was a game of runs. They got off to a good start, then we had a run, then they had a run at the end of the first half,” Leo coach Cary Cogdell said. “It was just a very good high school basketball game.”
The Lions may not have made a big deal about it, but they knew what we all knew; that they were pretty heavy underdogs going into the final game. There comes that response to pressure: do you lunge forward or do you fall backwards?
We got the first answer pretty quickly into the game. While most teams on Silver Creek’s schedule would do anything they could to shy away from Mr. Basketball candidate Trey Kaufman-Renn, Leo did the opposite. The very first points of the state title game saw Leo’s interior force, DJ Allen, go right at rim and Kaufman-Renn. He used his big frame, pushed forward and then pulled up with a short jumper, giving Leo 2-0 lead. Leo clearly wanted to come out and hit Silver Creek in the mouth and that is what they accomplished.
No, it wasn’t all gravy from there. In fact, the Lions weren’t able to take much advantage in the first quarter of Allen’s initial move. But they still set a very loud tone, that the state title was not going to be earned on this day without a lots of fight.
With Blake Davison struggling from the field and the usual interior duo of Zack Troyer and Allen not able to just bend Silver Creek’s post players at will, Leo needed another dog in the fight much like they had needed Xavier Middleton in the semi state round.
Enter Ayden Ruble. His strength, speed and movement was all superior in his matchup and he took advantage of it. While waiting for Davison to get going and Allen and Troyer to further try to wear down Kaufman-Renn and Kooper Jacobi, Ruble was critical in keeping Leo in the game early with seven big points.
The Lions fell into a consistent flow in the second quarter, getting as comfortable as you can get leads on Silver Creek. Troyer gave Leo a 15-14 lead with 3:14 to play. Eric Steger pushed the Leo lead to four with a three pointer and then Middleton also connected with a three that gave Leo a game high five point lead with just 1:28 to play in the second before Jacobi took over and scored five points of his own in the final 29 seconds of the first half. It was a big spurt for Jacobi’s heroic night where he tallied 18 points and 18 rebounds. Silver Creek led 22-21 at the half and never trailed again, pushing their lead to as many as 10 points in the fourth.
The fourth quarter was everything you want it to be if you follow Leo basketball. It’s everything that we knew it could be. There was fight and there was zero give up no matter what collective of guys were on the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Davison continued to be masterful, taking the fight to the Dragons in the clutch and ultimately finishing with 20 points after going scoreless in the first half. When they needed a basket, Davison was there and where they needed a stop, their full court defense showed up and showed out.
“I knew he was going to get going, he just needed one to drop. Him going to the free throw line making those free throws, I thought here we go, he’s going to pop the lid off and he’s going to get going,” Cogdell said of Davison in the second half. “He knows how much he means to us and this program and what he’s done for us.”
Then Silver Creek did what Silver Creek couldn’t afford to do. They started, at least, to do what South Bend St. Joe did when faced with similar pressure from Leo in the semi state round; they shrank. Silver Creek didn’t want to get to a dog fight. And that’s no knock on them, because they area clearly a very good basketball team. No matter who the better team was on Saturday and no matter who walked out with the state championship trophy and the blue ribbons, there should be zero doubt that Leo had to fight advantage. So Silver Creek spent much of the second half of the fourth quarter just running clock, dribbling the air out of the ball and making one more argument for a shot clock in Indiana high school basketball. Leo had Silver Creek on their heels and don’t let anyone tell you for a single second that they didn’t.
They shrank the two time champion Dragons down to a moment where Silver Creek wanted to do anything they could to make sure that the Lions’ possessions and opportunities were limited.
Leo had the chance to take the lead in the closing minute, but a turnover as Davison advanced to the basket allowed the Dragons to spend some time at the free throw line. Silver Creek hit just two of their four free throws and left the door open for another Leo miracle moment.
Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough juice left in that buzzer beating machine for 2021.
The closing sequence is one that Leo fans and players and coaches will play in their minds over and over again. That is the nature of the beast when you have a final second shot whether it goes in or not.
Trailing by three, Davison led a break down the court and went to pull up for a three, but was immediately double teamed. Seeing a streaking Allen at the rim, Davison made the absolute best basketball move: dump it off for the easy lay in. Allen’s basket went in to cut the Silver Creek lead to one with five seconds to play. Unlike other basketball leagues, in high school basketball the state of Indiana, that clock never stops on a make. With no Leo timeouts remaining, Silver Creek didn’t even have to inbounds the ball.
It was a crushing moment, an educated decision but a severe miscue based on timing. For Silver Creek, it was the best scenario. The last thing they wanted to do was inbounds the basketball.
There wasn’t a win on the final scoreboard for Leo, but putting Silver Creek in that position will be kind of win when Leo looks back on this one down the road.
“I am super proud of them, I love them,” Cogdell said of his postgame message to the Lions. “You couldn’t ask more for a team. They are truly the consummate cliche. I know it is said often, but they are a team. The sum is greater than the individual parts because of their unselfishness and they stick together and they don’t give up and they believe in one another.”