Indiana's basketball run comes to end
WEXFORD — A WPIAL championship and a busload of memories will have to suffice for the Indiana Indians.
The ride is over.
The most successful boys’ basketball season in school history — the one that came with an unprecedented amount of success — came to a painful but celebratory end Tuesday night when the Indians were beaten by New Castle, 50-43, in the second round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs at North Allegheny High School.
It wasn’t the ending the players had envisioned. But it was an ending the Indians could live with.
“I can’t even describe how much fun everyone had this year,” said senior Riley Stapleton, the team’s emotional leader. “It’s a shame it ended. But we went down fighting. There’s not much more we could have done.”
The Indians didn’t get cheated out of a win and they didn’t get beat by an inferior team playing out of its mind. No, they just ran into a better team, one that had all the answers and imposed their will from the start.
New Castle had just a little too much of everything for Indiana: too much speed, too much grit, too much tenacity. The only thing the Red Hurricanes didn’t have much of was height, but that seemed to matter little as they made the night difficult for Indiana and its legion of followers.
“They did what they needed to do to win the game,” said Indiana senior Kevin Jack, “and they got us doing what we normally don’t.”
New Castle used a full-court press to force some turnovers and outrebounded the Indians (especially offensively) and scored several times on second chances. Mix that in with a poor shooting night for Indiana, and it’s easy to see why the Indians lost.
“It wasn’t rocket science that we needed to box out,” said Indiana coach Greg Lezanic. “But this team had a combination of quick feet along with quick hands. It seemed like they got to every loose ball. Those hands were always going, knocking the ball loose.”
New Castle led from the start, 14-10 after one quarter and 17-16 after two. But the Indians found their magic in the third period and surged ahead, thanks to some 3-pointers from Jack and some underneath shots from Blake Shields, who finished with a game-high 19 points.
The Indians held a 35-30 lead at the end of the third quarter, but from there it was all New Castle. The Red Hurricanes outscored Indiana 20-8 in the fourth quarter, with the Indians making only one field goal until the final minute of the game.
“I don’t think any of us ever felt like we were out of it,” said Stapleton, who hit the game-winning shot in the WPIAL championship game against Beaver Falls on Feb. 27. “But we just never went on that fourth-quarter run like we usually do.”
That’s mostly because of what New Castle did and partially because of what Indiana did not do. The Red Hurricanes forced 19 turnovers, 12 of which came in the second half. They turned many of those into transition points that fueled a 16-2 run in the first half of the fourth quarter that sealed the Indians’ fate.
“The momentum was so strong down the stretch that it was too hard for them to get anything going,” said New Castle coach Ralph Blundo.
Add it all up, and it’s easy to understand how Indiana’s season came to an end. And although there were some tears shed in the Indiana locker room afterward, there was plenty of pride on display for all the things Indiana accomplished this season.
For a team that has historically struggled to even make the playoffs, rolling its way to its first WPIAL championship was quite a feat. And the way it happened — with Dylan Stapleton dishing to his brother Riley in the closing seconds for the winning basket — makes it all the more memorable.
But the thing that will always stick out for the players is the way the town and its surrounding communities jumped on the bandwagon as the wins piled up through the winter.
“In the tip-off tournament, what did we have? Two-hundred people?” Lezanic said. “We had a thousand people here (tonight), at least. To have the fans and community support these boys, the ride has been unbelievable.”
The players who proudly wore the school colors won’t soon forget the ride they went on this year, even if it did end with a loss. The reality is that only one team ends its season with a win, and that’s the state champion. Indiana won’t win that title this year, but that seemed to hardly matter.
What did matter is the way in which the Indians won 25 games and lost only three. They did it together, an idea Lezanic has pushed every day since he took over the program three years ago.
“What a group of young men,” Lezanic said. “To win the WPIAL championship and to be here with these guys, it’s unbelievable. We’ve won with class all year. We didn’t throw it in people’s faces and we didn’t run up the score. And we lost with class. It was a great year.”
Indeed it was a great year. But it’s a year that sadly came to an end Tuesday night.
“It was a heck of a season,” said Jack. “That’s the only way you can put it. We have nothing to hang our heads about. I love every one of these guys in the locker room. That’s what I’m going to miss about it.”
But there’s more to it than that, isn’t it?
“We’re going to wake up and realize what a heck of a season we had,” Jack said. “We’ll be more proud than ever to come to school.”