CENTERBURG – About 10 minutes after his team’s first round tournament game on Tuesday night, Centerburg sophomore Carter Jones stood at the far end of the court, jersey untucked, taking questions.
Still in game mode, Jones looked straight ahead as he spoke about his team’s postseason goals. Then, just like that, his focus broke.
“Good game!” said a little boy, about half Jones’s height, who had bounced over to the 6-foot-4 wingman fearlessly.
Jones extended his right arm and turned his palm upwards to receive a joyous ‘low-five’ slap from the youngster, who smiled and bounced away.
“Thank you,” Jones said back.
Jones’s newest fan may be young, but he knew what he was watching. The forward did have a good game – 28 points, to be exact – as he led the Trojans to a 66-23 opening round win over visiting Northside Christian.
Jones scored 22 points in the first half, which was 14 more than Northside Christian (9-12) scored as a team. The Trojans (14-9) led 25-2 after one quarter and 39-8 at halftime. A running clock was initiated at the 4:32 mark in the third quarter, when Centerburg’s lead grew to 35 (per a new postseason rule). Nine Trojans scored in the win.
“I thought we were focused, I thought we were business-like. I thought they were ready to go,” Centerburg head coach Skyler Brusco said after the game. “They looked good in practice all week and we were healthy for the first time in a while, so I thought we were ready to go.”
The Trojans did it with pressure defense – a full-court man press, to be specific – which they ran relentlessly for three quarters. The Lions struggled to get the ball past half court in the first half, as Centerburg’s guards created chaos 80 feet from the basket. The Trojans baited the Lions into suffocating traps, which led to steals or errant passes that resulted in layups at the other end.
Jones said that was an adjustment from the last time these two teams met, on Jan. 26, when Centerburg won by just five points.
“Last time we played them, we kind of sat back and it kind of hurt us,” Jones said. “But we got up in them this time and it really helped.”
When Centerburg wasn’t scoring in transition, they were picking apart Northside Christian’s 1-3-1 zone with quick, crisp passes. In between an array of Jones lay-ins and three-pointers, freshman point guard Mick Mead scored five in a row – once on a drive through traffic, then on a bank-in three.
Jones had no problem leading the fast break on Tuesday, despite being the biggest player on the court. He would often take the ball in transition after a steal, looking for teammates as he charged towards the basket. If he wasn’t laying the ball in off the glass, he was dropping pin-point dimes to the likes of Hayden Hankinson, his post counterpart, who could just as easily finish the job.
“I think that when I have the ball going up the floor I can see it pretty well, and guys know I’ll hit them,” Jones said. “So if I get the ball then they’ll know to run and we’ll get easy buckets.”
Even when Northside Christian made it past half court, the Lions struggled to work around Centerburg’s pressure. They were forced into bad shots and were not given second-chance opportunities, thanks to a five-man rebounding effort from the home team.
The one bright spot for the visitors came late in the second half, when senior Josh Niega found his footing. The wing attacked the rim with relative ease, finishing with 14 points – 9 of which came in the fourth quarter – to lead the Lions.
But from start to finish, it was all Centerburg on Tuesday night. The Trojans came in with a newfound focus and intensity; they dove on the floor for loose balls, sprinted in transition and took charges. Their bench was loud and engaged the entire night.
After losing their last three regular season games, it seemed as if a rejuvenated Trojan squad took the floor that night. Maybe it was a mental shift. Both Brusco and Jones repeated the same line after the game: in the tournament, “everybody is 0-0.”
“It’s a new season – time to get fresh, do those type of things,” Brusco said. “And everybody plays for the tournament, whether it’s the NCAA or March Madness or the state tournament in Ohio. I mean, everybody loves the brackets and it’s just fun to have that excitement and that energy. And I think our guys really are embracing that right now.”
Centerburg has a mix of young and old on its roster – Jones and Mead are both underclassmen, while Hankinson and starting two-guard Michael Kuhn are more seasoned. They have mixed levels of tournament experience. Brusco said the focus has been getting everyone on the same page.
“We tried to relay to them that the intensity comes up. You know, nobody wants to go home, especially teams that have seniors and things like that,” he said. “The intensity gets ratcheted up. So we tried to tell them that this week and they took it to heart.”
The Trojans will host Shekinah Christian (15-8) in the second round on Friday night. Tip-off will be at 7 p.m. The winner of that game will play the winner of Berne Union vs. Danville, which will take place on the same night.
If all goes according to plan, the three-seed Trojans could have a real shot at a tournament run. But even sophomores like Jones know that looking too far ahead will do them no good. Instead, he prefers to stay in the present.
“We’re trying to take it one game at a time. I just found out we play Shekinah next and they’re a pretty good team,” said Jones, who paused to high-five his new fan. “And after that, we don’t know, but it’s one game at a time. We’re just trying to win every one we play.”
|Northside Christian (A)||2||6||4||11||23|
Centerburg: Carter Jones, 28 points; Hayden Hankinson, 10 points; Mick Mead, 8 points; Landon Griffith, 7 points; Michael Kuhn, 4 points; Tyler Harry, 3 points; Jack Gregory, 2 points; Hayden Sutton, 2 points; John Wharton, 2 points.
Northside Christian: Josh Niega, 14 points; Tatenda Kanyongo, 4 points; Andrew Peeler, 2 points; Chris Meyer, 2 points; J.T. Winters, 1 point.