CENTERBURG – John Marhefka would rather not say exactly what he told his team at halftime on Wednesday night.
But whatever it was, it worked.
His Centerburg Trojans came out of the locker room with a renewed sense of urgency – a heightened focus – and they outscored visiting Columbus International 18-4 in the period, en route to a 68-47 victory in the first round of the Div. III tournament.
“We talked about our defense …” Marhefka conceded, generalizing his halftime speech with a wry smile. “I think we were trying to outscore them and trying to do stuff and we let slippage happen on our defensive end. That’s why I made the adjustment.”
Centerburg (seeded eighth in the Central District) came out in its standard full-court zone press, which usually serves as a catalyst for its fast-break offense. But Columbus International (seeded 22nd) was not phased. The Lions were able to break the pressure and score, forcing Centerburg into a back-and-forth first half that nearly drew even. A buzzer-beating three-pointer by Levi Houck gave the Trojans a 39-31 lead heading into the locker room.
“I said, ‘We’re just going back to man and playing ‘50’ the way we want to play it, to our standard,’” Marhefka said. “And I challenged some of the young men. I said, ‘Look, this is how you’re going to play. If you don’t get it in the first couple minutes, then you’re coming out and the next guy’s (coming in). Be ready, because that’s how we’re going to play.’”
This change in philosophy – and additional motivation – worked like a charm. The Trojans came out of the locker room looking for blood.
“Even though they got tired, we put some guys in and they kept it going,” Marhefka said with a smile. “They were just rolling from there. I think that was the difference-maker in the game.”
Centerburg switched to half-court man defense and ratcheted up the intensity, forcing turnovers that led to easy buckets on the other end. Junior point guard Mick Mead, the Trojans’ vocal leader, got things going early on. He scored twice off of turnovers to begin the quarter, forcing Columbus International to call a timeout as the bleachers rumbled.
Mead was accompanied by senior forward Carter Jones, who recorded 9 of his game-high 19 points in the second half. Jones did it from all over the court, scoring inside on drives and put-backs, while also draining mid-range jumpers and a triple.
“I think our leadership has been really good … When they come out and turn it up, then everybody has to,” Marhefka said of Mead and Jones. “We get more comfortable, more confident, and that’s when we play a better brand of basketball that we want to show.”
One of the beneficiaries of Centerburg’s veteran leadership was Colton Martin, a sophomore forward who thrived in Wednesday’s fast-paced environment. Martin used his length to disrupt Columbus International defensively, and he transferred that momentum into buckets on the other end. The sophomore finished with 13 points.
“Colton’s a good young player. If he continues to work, he’s got a huge upside to him …” Marhefka said. “He’s gaining confidence and growing, and we expect big things out of him in the future.”
Martin felt the team’s second-half energy was contagious. One big play led to another, he said, and the lead grew from there.
“We were kind of slow in the first half. We just needed to get out and run and play our game, push the ball with pace …” Martin said. “It feels great just to play with energy from everybody else. It just feels good to push the ball and just play our game.”
Houck scored 10 points on Wednesday, while Mead notched 8. Kenyon Jones led Columbus International in scoring with 18 points, and Sam Whitaker III registered 12.
Centerburg led 57-35 after three quarters, holding Columbus International scoreless for the final 4:37 of the period. When the Trojans weren't forcing turnovers, they were contesting shots and rebounding.
On the other end, Centerburg shared the ball and knocked down shots. Nine Trojans scored on Wednesday night, including several emerging underclassmen.
Marhefka said he was proud of the way his team responded in the second half, and that it will need to keep the same energy moving forward. At this point in the season, he said, “there are no easy games.”
“This game was tough, we had to get through that first half and kind of guard well. But I think every team now that you’re facing is coming for you,” Marhefka said. “There’s nothing that’s going to surprise you.”
Centerburg will hit the road Saturday to face 4-seed North Union in the second round. The Trojans, winners of two straight Knox-Morrow Athletic Conference titles, will be tested, Marhefka said. The teams appear primed for a 12-round fight.
“They’re going to be physical, they’re going to be tough at home, they defend, and it’s a good matchup for us. They have a big post, we have Carter. They can go back-and-forth and match-up there. We have some length on the wings and some athletes, they’ve got some athletes. They’re a bit thicker, so we’re gonna see how that goes,” Marhefka said.
“Hopefully our minds are right and it’s a good game, and we put on a good show and play some good basketball, and then come out on top.”