Everybody knows Central Noble can play offense. Well, spoiler if you aren’t well enough acquainted, their defense is top tier too.
The Cougars relied on that shot and pass altering defense significantly throughout Saturday’s semi state game to top Carroll (Flora) 54-48. The win at Elkhart’s North gym earned Central Noble their first ever trip to the state finals next week in Indianapolis.
The rims were quite unforgiving throughout the game for both teams. Normally more of a shooter’s type of place, which we’ve seen in recent years with local teams, it really wasn’t early on Saturday.
Connor Essegian buried a three pointer with 4:45 left in the first quarter with a hand in his face in what looked like it would help to a fast start for Central Noble. He did end the first quarter with nine points, but the shots in the first half did not come easy for anyone from Albion, despite some great looks.
Those rims after all were not fun.
What was fun was Central Noble’s defense. With just over three minutes to go in the first quarter, Carroll tried to loft a pass back towards midcourt that was Essegian’s ball all day. He tipped it to himself and took off for an uncontested dunk. Central Noble had very active hands in the first half, getting deflections and making it hard for Carroll to get easy passes. With 1:34 left in the first half, Noah Shepherd was the epitome of that early Central Noble defense as he strong armed the ball away from Carroll in a passing lane. While the ball was ultimately turned over on a Central Noble travel, when Carroll got it back, Logan Gard just swatted it away at the rim.
Needless to say it was a strong showcase of how efficient Central Noble’s defense was.
The defensive activity ran through everyone that touched the court for Central Noble all game. While Gard was a big defender inside, Conner Lemmon, Ryan Schroeder and others were tenacious defensively, never wanting their season to end
The Albion version of the Cougars continued to bother shots enough to force a Chris Huerta airballed three and a triple from Owen Duff that bounced off the side of the backboard in the first half.
Under a minute to play, Lemmon’s three pointer gave Central Noble a six point lead (22-16) that was their biggest of the game to that point. That was the score at the halftime break.
Several rushed passing attempts for Central Noble in the third quarter resulted in turnovers that kept Carroll firmly in the game. Duff and Jake Skinner tightened up their own defense in the third quarter, pushing a lull in offense against Essegian. Despite that, Essegian did put in a shot in the third that made him the 10th all-time scorer in the history of the state of Indiana.
With 45.9 seconds left in the third, Essegian added to the defensive monster of a game when he chased down a Carroll player to block his shot from behind so hard that it got stuck between the rim and backboard. Central Noble led 29-26 after three but Essegian opened the fourth with another three pointer to reappoint himself as the offensive activity leader of the game. Carroll chipped back at Central Noble with 5:50 to go as Will Eldridge scored at the rim to make it 34-32 in Central Noble’s favor after a game where Gard had handled Eldridge in the paint pretty well.
The ebb and flow went back to Central Noble with 4:43 to go as Schroeder buried a three pointer to give Central Noble a seven point lead after Essegian drew in the defense and found his senior teammate for the look. And just like that, leading 41-34, the Central Noble offense started to match the intensity of their defense. On the very next play, it was Gard who kept it rolling with yet another blocked shot that drew roars from the Central Noble fans. With 2:14 to play, a put back from Skinner cut the Carroll deficit to four at 43-39, certainly keeping things interesting. Carroll continued to work the offensive glass, with Duff pulling one in off a missed free throw with 1:23 to play to head to the line himself; he hit neither but a loose ball on the rebound gave the ball right back to Carroll.
On the ensuing play, Duff got the ball back and secured a basket to pull within 45-41. On the other end though, Essegian to Gard for a two handed dunk put the momentum back to Central Noble with Essegian finding Gard as he was falling to the floor. Carroll missed their fourth and fifth straight free throws with 49.3 seconds to play and it allowed Central Noble to salt the game away at the free throw line.
Gard finished the day with five blocks. Essegian, for his effort, not only climbed that scoring list but he also surpassed 2,500 points for his career and finished with a game high 25 points.
Central Noble will play in next Saturday’s Class 2A state title game at 12:45 p.m. at Gainbridge Fieldhouse against either Eastern Hancock or Providence.
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