CENTERBURG – With less than 40 seconds remaining on Friday night, Centerburg’s Hayden Sutton intercepted a Northmor inbounds pass and pitched the ball ahead to his point guard, Mick Mead.
The game was tied. The gym was packed. There were KMAC title implications on the line.
As Mead glided up the court, padding the ball in his right hand, his coach bellowed from the sideline.
One shot! One shot!
“He couldn’t hear me anyway,” Skyler Brusco joked afterwards. The gym seemed to radiate as the final seconds ticked down.
As it turns out, Mead could hear his coach just fine.
“Coach was yelling, ‘One shot,’” the sophomore recalled sheepishly. “And my defender was way off me…”
And the rest was history. Mead eyed the basket, took another dribble and let it fly from 22 feet. No hesitation, no second thoughts.
In a game where points were held to a premium, Mead’s cocksure three-pointer with 30 seconds remaining was a knockout blow. It marked Centerburg's first lead of the game – and the only one it would need. The Trojans went on to win, 33-29, in a game that could very well determine this year’s KMAC champion.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” Mead said. “Just all the momentum building up to this game, the league implications – it’s just a huge win for us as a team.”
Centerburg (11-2, 7-1 KMAC) came into Friday’s matchup a half-game ahead of Northmor (8-4, 5-2) for first place in the conference standings. Now, the Trojans have a one-and-a-half game cushion (and a one-game lead over second-place Mount Gilead) with a month of regular season basketball remaining.
The victory also handed Centerburg the season sweep of Northmor, which would give the Trojans the tiebreaker should the two teams end the season even.
Brusco said afterwards that he initially didn’t like the shot from Mead. But he understood why he took it – and he trusted him to make it.
“That’s always a hard call because you’re like, OK, the textbook says to hold for one right there,” Brusco said. “But I just told him, ‘Big-time players are gonna hit big-time shots in big-time moments.’ He did that.”
Mead said his thought process was simple: All game, Centerburg had struggled against Northmor’s set defense. Why not shoot it when they aren’t set?
“I decided I had to take a chance to win it for our team, because I knew it was going to be tough to score when they were prepared, and they weren’t prepared,” Mead recalled. “So I just took that shot.”
It was the second dramatic win of the week for Centerburg, which beat Marion Pleasant on Tuesday, 46-44. Landon Griffith laid the ball in with six seconds remaining to give Centerburg the win.
Who had the assist on the play? None other than Mead.
“My week has been pretty amazing, other than the fact that I’m really sick,” the sophomore said with a smile. “It’s been great because Landon, who made the shot, I just felt great for him because he was able to win that. He’s been struggling shooting the ball, and to have him hit that, it’s great for him. I just really love that we’ve been able to put two great wins together.”
While Mead stole the spotlight late Friday, it was senior center Hayden Hankinson who carried Centerburg through the majority of the game.
Hankinson scored Centerburg’s first 14 points (and all but two of the team’s first-half total). He finished with 18 points on a night where Carter Jones, the team’s leading scorer, was held to just 6.
“They were really shading Carter, they were doubling Carter, they were fronting Carter, not letting him try to catch the ball,” Brusco said. “So it was Hoss’s night, you know? It was his night and he delivered.”
All six of Hankinson’s field goals came in the paint. When Jones was double-teamed, he made himself available, flashing to open spots and finishing through contact. Despite being held 14 points below his average, Jones remained engaged, instead using his next-level passing ability to pick apart the Northmor defense.
On the other end, Centerburg’s Hayden Sutton locked down Blake Miller. Northmor’s double-double machine finished with just 5 points on Friday (including none in the second half), as Sutton used old-school ball pressure to deter the 6-6 senior.
“He did a great job on Blake defensively tonight, because Blake can really play,” Brusco said.
With both teams’ leading scorers out of the equation, Friday night’s marquee matchup turned into a slugfest. Northmor led 20-16 at halftime, and things only got more defensive from there.
“I used to coach in the Mid-State League with like Logan Elm and Bloom Carroll and Canal Winchester and stuff like that back in the day. It was a knock-down, drag-out league, and it was sit down and play man-to-man defense, and it was a war,” Brusco said. “And that’s like what that was right there.”
Centerburg scored the first four points of the second half, as Jones finished a high-low lay-in to tie the score at 20. Northmor stretched the lead to five on a corner three from Hunter Mariotti, who led the Knights in scoring with 12 points. But the Trojans closed the gap again to end the third quarter, as a Mead pull-up three made it 25-all heading into the game’s final stanza.
Northmor took a 29-25 lead on a Mariotti jumper with 6:36 left in the game. The Golden Knights would never score again.
Centerburg tightened its defense down the stretch, forcing Northmor into turnovers and contested shots. The Trojans were able to tie it on the other end before Mead hit his dagger three with less than a minute remaining. Mariotti missed a contested three with nine seconds left, and Sutton iced the game with a free throw.
Hankinson believes his team’s experience allowed it to pull ahead late. Centerburg found itself down eight at halftime against Northmor earlier this year and found a way to come back and win that game as well.
“We’ve been in these situations before, we’re an experienced team...” Hankinson said. “It’s our time to shine right now. We know what to do.”
In the end, Northmor coach Zach Ruth said turnovers killed his team Friday. The Knights were without their starting point guard, who suffered an injury at practice the day before, and it showed down the stretch against Centerburg.
“We had a really good first half, we just struggled. I think we walk away just disappointed in our lack of execution,” Ruth said. “I’ve got some good seniors, love them to death, but turnovers killed us.”
Ruth also noted that his team did not shoot a free throw on Friday night, which he found curious.
“I think this may be the first game I’ve ever coached in my life that we never attempted a foul shot,” he said. “And trust me, of the 250-something games I’ve coached, I’ve only blamed losing one game to officials. But we didn’t attempt one foul shot tonight, so that’s kind of hard to swallow a little bit, when we were kind of running a dribble-drive offense there and pounding it inside.”
But Ruth credited Centerburg for the win – “they’re a very talented team” – and said his team will learn from this experience.
“The chips just didn’t fall our way. And as a coach, the thing you try and tell the kids is that some things happen for a reason. Sometimes things don’t go your way and there’s a reason why, and you hopefully learn and find out later,” Ruth said. “Then you look back and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, it makes sense now.’ So it is what it is.”
And while Centerburg secured the tiebreaker and gained an advantage on Northmor in the KMAC standings Friday, the season is far from over. The Trojans have six more conference games, while the Knights have seven. A lot can happen over the next month.
“Technically, we’re only a game back of Centerburg, and Fredericktown beat them the first time,” Ruth said. “So this thing’s not done yet.”
Centerburg will head to Danville on Tuesday to face the 1-11 Blue Devils. Northmor will travel to Grandview Heights on Saturday before returning home to face Mount Gilead on Tuesday.
For the Trojans, Friday’s win wasn’t pretty – but it was a win nonetheless. Brusco will take it.
“All credit to Northmor, we just were lucky to come out a few points ahead tonight,” he said. “Man, what a game. That was awesome.”