Shots tough for NH after hot start
When Eli Gutknecht split a double screen and swished a triple before the red light illuminated on the backboard to close the first quarter, not many fans in blue and white kept their bottoms on the bleachers Saturday night.
The shot put upset-minded North Harrison up 17-9 against 3A No. 8 Silver Creek at the Class 3A North Harrison Sectional championship.
Making its first appearance in a sectional final since 2005, North Harrison showed no signs of nerves in the early going. Points the rest of the way, however, were tough to come by for the Cougars.
Once Silver Creek took a 20-19 lead in the second quarter on a Kooper Jacobi steal-and-score, the Dragons never looked back. Backed by lock-down defense in the second and third quarters, holding North Harrison to seven points during the stretch, Silver Creek went on to a 50-37 victory. It was the fourth sectional in the last five tries for the Dragons.
‘In the first quarter, things looked good, but (the Dragons) were still taking away our inside game and our cuts,’ North Harrison coach Kevin Jones said. ‘The outside was open, which I knew it would be. We were OK because we hit shots and got some put-backs. We really had some momentum, but it dried up in the second and third quarters.’
Silver Creek’s money has been made all season on the defensive end. The Dragons rank in the top 25 in the state in fewest points allowed at 43. They may not score a ton, but they don’t give up much. The regular-season bout between North Harrison and Silver Creek saw the Dragons win 42-28.
Coming into the tournament, North Harrison had won only five games in sectional play since the class-basketball era began. Snagging two wins and making a championship appearance is not only encouraging, but also gave Jones a moment to teach as Silver Creek players lifted the hardware.
‘This has to be a stepping stone,’ Jones said. ‘We were able to get to the championship game. I made the underclassmen sit out there and watch the trophy presentation. I’m hoping that image is burned into their minds. A picture of that will probably be hanging in our locker room some time next week. (Championship) is our goal.’
Junior Skyler Wetzel began the game with a lay-in after picking off a pass for North Harrison. Soon, a 3-pointer trickled through the netting for senior Max Flock. Inside, sophomore Braden Jenkins scored two straight baskets to give North Harrison a 9-7 lead, forcing Silver Creek to call time-out.
Shots continued to fall for North Harrison. Speedy senior guard Jake Book took a long defensive rebound and went the distance, finishing with his left hand for a field goal. Then, a corner pocket trey went down for Wetzel. Off the bench, Gutknecht, a junior, netted his big triple for a 17-9 lead after one frame.
‘We had a really good first quarter,’ Jones said. ‘Against Silver Creek, they are so physical. It’s like when (Lou) Lefevre was at Providence; they learn how not to foul. They are good at using their bodies and legs to run you out of the paint.’
Silver Creek’s physical defense featured not only bulk inside with Southern Illinois football commit Jacob Garrett, but also long forwards Sammy Barnett (an Indiana University baseball commit), Bennett Beyl and others, including freshmen Kooper Jacobi and Trey Kaufman.
In the second quarter, the Dragons’ defense only allowed two points, a challenged bucket inside made by Flock. North Harrison was able to attempt three free throws but misfired on all.
Silver Creek’s offense started to pick up when Kaufman came off the bench to net a triple. Jack Hawkins and Jacobi made two free throws apiece before Jacobi’s transition bucket gave Silver Creek the lead at 20-19.
‘I thought we did a pretty good job on (Zane) Gross,’ Jones said. ‘He might be the best player in the conference. The first half, our 2-3 zone got us where we wanted to be. I told the kids from November to now, we’ve come a long way.’
Gross, a Silver Creek junior, was held to two points in the first half. He went on to score 13 for the game.
To begin the second half, Hawkins nailed a 3-pointer. Steals by Barnett and Gross led to additional Silver Creek field goals and a 27-19 lead.
In nearly eight minutes, North Harrison was held scoreless, eventually broken by Book feeding a rolling Langdon Hatton to the rim for two points.
‘The beginning of the third, Hawkins hits that 3, then we turn the ball over,’ Jones said. ‘You could see Silver Creek thought they had the game at that point, and we could never get back to that point.’
Kaufman, who battled with Hatton at moments on the floor, giving a glimpse of the future for the freshmen, put Silver Creek up 10, 32-22, with a 3-pointer. Barnett, who closed with a game-high 14 points, hit all eight of his free throws including two late in the third quarter.
North Harrison could never get its inside game working consistently. Jenkins drew plenty of attention and was held to six points.
‘We forget sometimes that Braden and LT are a sophomore and a freshman,’ Jones said. ‘Garrett is a grown man. That’s how he plays. The physicality he brings makes it tough.’
North Harrison showed some life offensively in the final quarter, but the Dragons were solid at the foul line to keep a modest lead, making 10 of 14 in the fourth. Book, Wetzel, Flock, Jenkins and Gutknecht were able to find the score book late. Wetzel and Flock paced North Harrison in scoring with eight and seven points, respectively.
‘Our shots is one area we need to work on,’ Jones said. ‘These last two years, after Alex Flock left, we haven’t had consistent shooters. Eli can shoot the ball in stretches, but he has to get better at other parts of his game. Max struggled the last 10 or 12 games, and Skyler struggled all season. I think Langdon will be a shooter for us in the future, and Jenkins needs to work on extending his game.’
Jones wants his group to work toward getting back to the sectional. A 17-win season, the first since going back-to-back from 2002 to 2004, hopes to have the Cougars trending forward.
‘We don’t want to just be a visitor to the sectional championship game; we want to be a frequent flier in the future,’ Jones said. ‘Now that we’ve seen it, got a taste of it, we have to work harder. We have some talented freshmen coming in, and I hope our JV kids work hard to take that next step to be varsity players. There is a lot of positives. I’m upset the season is over but encouraged to think where we can go.’
Jones will see his first class graduate as seniors, including Jacob Harmon, who missed much of season with an ACL injury, Trevor Haub, Quinn Kaiser, Book and Flock.
‘They are great kids, and I like being around them,’ Jones said. ‘They have great personalities and have done great things for the program. They came in as freshmen and they were all world in middle school because Jake could get to the rim whenever he wanted. They all became basketball players instead of just real athletic players who could play basketball.’
Jones sees a bright future for the senior group as they move on as well.
‘My only regret was Harmon didn’t get to play,’ Jones said. ‘It stinks for him. It was out of his control over how his senior season ended … They will all be successful in all they do, which means more than what they did on the basketball court.’
Silver Creek 9 11 14 16 ‘ 50
North Harrison 17 2 5 13 ‘ 37
Silver Creek (19-5) ‘ Barnett 14, Gross 13, Hawkins 8, Kaufman 8, Jacobi 5, Kessinger 2.
North Harrison (17-9) ‘ Wetzel 8, Flock 7, Gutknecht 6, Jenkins 6, Book 5, Hatton 3, Harley 2.
3-point goals ‘ Silver Creek 4 (Hawkins 2, Kaufman 2); North Harrison 4 (Gutknecht 2, Flock, Wetzel).