HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: Indiana scores big win in front of huge crowd
Even without regard to its implications on Indiana’s season, Friday night’s game was one that will be remembered for a long time for the fans who filled all 898 seats in Fifth Street Gymnasium and still kept flowing in, all to see what the most exciting edition of Indiana High School boys’ basketball team in several years is all about.
In front of a gym that’s never been as packed as it was Friday, that team took a major step toward one of its biggest goals, taking the inside track to the WPIAL Section 1-AAA championship by avenging its only loss of the season with a 46-43 victory over Knoch.
“It was a fun night, wasn’t it?” Indiana coach Greg Lezanic said. “A crowd like this at Indiana … I was told when I took the job that we’d play in front of 100 people. I said, ‘OK, you wait. We’ll get this place rocking.’”
In a facility that rarely comes close to filling up, a crowd befitting the excitement and talent of the Indians finally turned out, overflowing into the narrow balcony overlooking the court and filling every doorway and corner in which a person could fit and catch a glimpse of a team on the verge of its first section title in 16 years.
Indiana improved to 15-1 overall and 7-1 in the section, pulling ahead of Knoch (13-2, 7-2), which defeated the Indians, 52-37, on Dec. 20 in Saxonburg. Indiana is tied for first place with Mars (10-6, 7-1), though the Indians beat the Planets, 71-66, on Jan. 8 in Mars. The Planets visit Indiana on Friday.
“I thought the crowd was going to be big, but I did not know that the balcony was going to be packed,” Indiana junior guard/forward Riley Stapleton said. “I don’t think you could’ve fit more people in here. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”
“Everyone knew it was a big game,” junior guard Kevin Jack said. “It was really fun to play in front of everyone and show them how good we are.”
In an atmosphere that made the fast-paced Indians want to fly, they instead had to slow it down to Knoch’s grinding tempo. The Knights entered the game allowing a WPIAL-low 38.1 points per game, and they kept the Indiana offense uncomfortable in the first half, almost all of which it trailed.
“We wanted to get them in a transition game, (but) they just rebounded,” Lezanic said. “It just seemed like in that first half they got rebounds and we couldn’t play at our tempo, but the second half, it’s not that we got every rebound, but we got enough.”
Jack was the catalyst for Indiana, nailing two 3-pointers in the last minute of the second quarter, including one with 3 seconds on the clock, to pull the Indians within one, 25-24, going into halftime. The point guard scored a game-high 17 points and dished out four assists.
“We put in a game plan,” he said. “We knew how to run all our half-court offenses. We practiced them all week, so if it got to the point of a slow-motion game, we could deal with it.”
Indiana took its first lead since a 2-0 edge, 31-30, on Darrious Carter’s layup from Jack’s feed with 1:35 to go in the third quarter. The teams were tied at 33 after three quarters.
Carter returned the favor a couple minutes into the fourth quarter, grabbing a steal and tossing the ball downcourt. Jack raced to corral the ball and managed to get a layup from underneath the hoop.
Carter had 11 rebounds to go with nine points. Stapleton scored 12 points, 10 in the second half.
“Eventually you just had to take it to them, drive to the rim and try to draw the foul,” Stapleton said. “The last game down at Knoch, we couldn’t figure it out, and it took us until the third and fourth quarters to really start figuring it out tonight.”
Indiana maintained a narrow lead through the fourth quarter and then went to a stall to hold the ball going into the final minute. Knoch got the ball back with 23 seconds to go but missed two 3s, including one at the buzzer.
“When you can hold a team like Indiana to 46, you’ve got to be happy with that,” Knoch coach Ron McNabb said. “We make a couple (more) shots, it could be a different outcome.”
Knoch got 13 points each from David Gallagher and Matthew Zanella. Austin Miller scored 11. Both teams finished at 41 percent shooting.
“If you told me before the season we’d split with Indiana, I would’ve been thrilled,” McNabb said, “because I saw them in the summer, we played them last year, I knew they had everybody back. Am I happy we lost tonight? No. Am I happy with a split? I’m thrilled with a split.
“Hopefully down the road we get to match up with them a third time, and hopefully it’s deep in the playoffs somewhere.”
Indiana controls its destiny in the section race with four section games remaining.
“This wasn’t for all the marbles, but it was for a nice number of the marbles,” Lezanic said.
“It really is a milestone,” Stapleton said. “Every practice we all look up at that banner and see there are only two section championships on there. It makes us strive to get another one up there every single day. Coming into this game we just had that look in our eyes. It was almost like you could see the reflection of the banner in everyone’s eyes. We really wanted it.”