It almost wasn’t a fair fight.
Indiana sent out the same starting five it did all regular season and in the WPIAL playoffs for Saturday afternoon’s Indiana Optimist Club Open Basketball Tournament championship game, and the Indians rolled to the underclass title, defeating West Shamokin, 54-33, at Fifth Street Gymnasium.
It’s nice like that when you don’t lose anyone from what was already a playoff team.
“We understand that. We had the full squad here, and if they’re graduating seniors, the other schools are at such a disadvantage,” Indiana coach Greg Lezanic said.
“Obviously we were outmanned in a number of ways, but that’s where you have to grow,” West Shamokin coach Mike Nagy said. “That’s where you get challenged, and you have to try to meet those challenges and you’ve got to try to learn from this game. This game was much better for us than it was for Indiana. I don’t know if Indiana takes anything from this game, but for our kids, we understand better now making better decisions and how you have to play against talented and bigger kids.”
Coming off a 17-7 season that ended in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs — after Indiana contended for the Section 3 title into the final week of the regular season and won a play-in game — the Indians claimed their sixth Optimist tournament title in the last seven years.
Indiana’s style under Lezanic meshed with the fun, free-flowing tempo the tournament always has. The Indians played aggressively on defense in the first half and ran the floor on offense, even throwing down two alley-oops, from Kevin Jack to Riley Stapleton and Darrious Carter, respectively.
“We like to have fun,” Lezanic said.
“I’m letting the guys dunk the ball. That’s just the idea of them having fun, and I think it goes over on the floor. They’ve learned how to have fun and still play hard.”
Stapleton, Indiana’s leading scorer in the 2012-13 season and the tournament’s most valuable player, scored a game-high 18 points and Carter, the team’s second-leading scorer, added 16. Stapleton was 9-for-9 from the free throw line, and the team finished 24-for-31 (77.4 percent).
“All the guys played with increased confidence from what they had last season,” Lezanic said, “but I can tell that some guys have been working the last month individually. Riley’s Riley, but he just had a nice form to his shot. Jacob’s (Zilinskas) foul shot is coming around. He’s been working on shooting, and Derek Stapleton’s been working in the driveway, and you could see that. You could see that they are getting better individually, and that’s the goal. If we get better individually, then through the summer league games we can pull it all together and get better as a team.”
West Shamokin also made the WPIAL playoffs last season, bowing out in the preliminary round of the Class AA tournament with an 11-11 record. Two other Section 1-AA teams, Apollo-Ridge and Burrell, made surprising runs to the WPIAL final four.
“It was great to see teams in our section do well,” Nagy said. “After last year we’re a young team, and I think our kids can see how we can play with these city schools. We can do this.”
Unlike Indiana, West Shamokin lost significant pieces from its playoff squad. Junior point guard Zane Clowser and sophomore guard Zac Horner, the Wolves’ two all-tournament selections, will be West Shamokin’s building blocks moving forward. Horner paced the Wolves with 11 points on Saturday, and Clowser added eight.
“(Clowser) had two outstanding games this week,” Nagy said. “He’ll be our standout senior next year. He’s quick out front and he runs our offense well. He’s going to be our catalyst. And then the Horner kid started varsity as a sophomore, and he’ll be a junior co-captain for us next year. So those two guys are really going to run the show for us. We’ve just got to get everybody else to pick their game up a little bit and do their role and see who works hard this summer and earns those starting spots.”
Carter and Kevin Jack were also all-tournament selections for Indiana. Homer-Center’s Darren Carr and Marion Center’s Todd Fetsko rounded out the all-tournament team.