TERRE HAUTE — If the last two weeks proved anything to Wabash Valley high school basketball fans, it was that toughness is what it takes to win tournaments.
On March 5 and 6 I watched an otherwise nondescript Martinsville team eliminate the Vigo County contingent from Indiana’s Class 4A Plainfield Sectional by absorbing everything our teams threw at it, then counterpunching.
And this past Friday and Saturday I was fortunate enough to watch Robinson’s Maroons give an even better example, emerging with the Illinois Class 2A state championship as a result.
Actually, the Maroons may have won the state tournament on Dec. 19. That’s when they entertained Chicago’s Morgan Park, a city ball experience that certainly came in handy against Hales Franciscan — a team one of the gentlemen sitting with me on press row felt might have been the best in the state in any class — and Peoria Manual.
Those two teams were in any discussion of the best defensive teams I saw all season, and would rank one-two in terms of being able to convert that defense to offense.
Many, many times the Maroons would turn the ball over to give up a layup. Many, many times the Maroons would lob the ball inside to 7-foot Meyers Leonard, only to have defenders swarm around him like piranha to bloody water. Many, many times during the season teams facing Hales or Manual would eventually wilt under that relentless pressure.
The Robinson kids got tougher.
By the second half of each game, particularly the championship game, they had figured out ways to attack — which they never stopped doing. As they got stronger with the ball, those defensive gambles by their opponents turned into free throw opportunities for the Maroons — who got to the line 77 times and made 62 of those attempts for the weekend. And in both games, just when it seemed the other team was ready to take over in the fourth quarter with a four-point lead (Friday) and a six-point advantage (Saturday), it was Robinson running off a streak of consecutive points to take over.
“All through the postseason, we’ve been behind in every game but found a way to win,” coach Bob Coffman said during the euphoria on the Carver Arena court after the championship game.
“We always pull together and find ways to win,” senior forward Devan Dirks said in a slightly quieter lockerroom a while later. “That’s what champions do.”
Yes they do.
If Robinson’s more aggressive scheduling this season was a big factor in the Maroons’ success, credit should also be paid to whoever coaches free throw shooting — that’s a joke, because I don’t think you can coach that — and whoever is in charge of conditioning. The Maroons used six players on Friday, eight on Saturday, and the five starters played the great majority of the minutes against two very deep foes.
Robinson was the fresher team at the end both nights. Coffman praised his team’s work at getting in shape and agreed it was a factor, “especially to make free throws at the end of games like we did.”
Which brings us, of course, to Derek Hannahs. I couldn’t find Mitch Hannahs in the huge Robinson crowds, but I suspect he was on the road with his Lincoln Trail baseball team. Let’s hope there’s a video available for him to watch his son sometime this week.
Derek’s not a bruiser, but he’s not afraid to attack the basket either. He wound up at the foul line 20 times Saturday, a dozen of those in the overtime period, and finished off Peoria Manual by hitting 18 of those. He was pretty sure, he said, that it was the most he’d ever made in a game. “All that matters is that I made the most tonight,” he added.
Attacking the basket, of course, is what Ben Jones does too. His first quarter Friday and his fourth quarter on Saturday — until getting perhaps (no perhaps, he’ll say) a dubious fifth-foul call — were also keys to Robinson’s offense.
One of the missing keys to Robinson’s offense were assists by Leonard from the post. A truly gifted passer, Leonard didn’t have an assist in either game — he averaged four per game for the year — because he was attracting so much quick, aggressive company.
“Coming out here, [opponents’] game plan is try to get my in foul trouble and get in my head,” the big man said after the game, “but I’m used to that.”
Being used to it isn’t to say that Leonard likes it. He said he’s ready to play against college-sized people after a weekend that tested him physically — with one particularly frightening fall on which no foul was called — and emotionally.
“Sometimes it’s hard to keep control of my emotions,” he admitted. “I kept my composure tonight with four fouls, but [being in foul trouble] gets under my skin because I want to make plays on every shot [by an opponent] … I think I still did a pretty decent job [in the middle defensively].”
My stat sheet had him with 10 blocks on Saturday, which would have been 12 except for two calls.
Other Robinson defenders were outstanding too, which is why both their opponents shot under 40 percent from the field. Dirks, Jones, Hannahs and sixth man Cody Chamblin all played well, usually facing all-state-caliber opposition, but the defensive ringleader was probably Austin Siler.
“That’s kind of been my role on the team this year,” Siler said Saturday when asked about his defense. Since the starting backcourts from Hales and Manual both included a pair of all-staters, Siler obviously saved his toughest challenge for last.
“They were so quick,” he said, agreeing he was guarding the best players he saw all year. “I just try to come out and make sure they’re not scoring a ton of points … this is amazing. I can’t even put [the feeling of winning the state championship] into words.”
“It’s awesome,” Hannahs agreed. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I’m numb right now.”
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid,” Jones added.
“All the hard work paid off,” said Dirks, who said he and his teammates had planned the moment “since we were little kids … and played AAU together. There were no doubts at all.”
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Leonard. “I’m thankful; I feel absolutely blessed to follow my teammates though our journey of success.”
One other journey should be mentioned too. Robinson is farther from Peoria than any of the other three schools, yet the Maroons had by far the biggest fan base — and by far the loudest one.
“It was as close to a home game as we could get,” said Coffman, crediting the fans for helping his team down the stretch of both games. “This was a win for our entire school and our entire community … definitely a community effort.”
TERRE HAUTE — If the last two weeks proved anything to Wabash Valley high school basketball fans, it was that toughness is what it takes to win tournaments.
- Amey Takes Aim
Amey Takes Aim: Tourney provided a few Classic moments
This column was falling into place nicely until about 1:15 p.m. Saturday. Then youth and inexperience reared up to bite it.
This time don't use your head
My personal suggestion is leather helmets.
As frightening data on concussions filters its way from the National Football League on down to colleges, high schools and youth leagues, I can’t help but think back to the time when I was standing on the sidelines watching my teammates play.
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Columnist prepares for vacation destinations.
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If Jenny had known, she probably wouldn’t have bought that TV.
But four or five years ago, my Fathers Day present — for those unfamiliar with Amey family traditions, the Fathers Day one is “let’s get something we all really want and pretend it’s a gift for Dad” — was a 42-inch Vizio. It’s been used even more than the cell phone I never would have bought for myself, or the TomTom that disappeared since Jenny’s smartphone arrived.
And it came with high-def.
I’m not going to insult you by telling you how great high-def is, because to do so would be to imply that you are even farther behind the technological curve than I am. I’m guessing, however, that not all of you have yet discovered what it does for hockey.
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The first bad sign was the Gatorade bottle.
In the Bataan-Death-March drive to Orlando that got the Amey family spring break vacation off to a bad start, seeing it between lanes of I-24 — as we zipped along at a 100-miles-in-five-hours clip — filled with an ominous yellow liquid was a little bit scary. And although we didn't stop to check for sure, I'm fairly certain I knew about its contents.
And the person stuck in the same traffic jam with us, the one with the existential license plate YMIHR4, couldn’t have asked a more pertinent question.
But, after seeing a lot more of Oak Grove, Ky., than we’d planned, and after enduring more traffic slowdowns in Nashville, we were on our way. Even some rain in the dark in the Smokies didn’t slow us down much, so you would think our first-day troubles were over.
You would be wrong.
ANDY AMEY: Farewell to basketball
I believe you’ve heard me say before — just about a year ago, perhaps — that a boys high school basketball season that ends with the Tribune-Star in Bankers Life Fieldhouse can’t be considered a bad one, which is why we have a little celebrating to do thanks to the Linton Miners.
Lover of irony that I am, I’ve also got to point out that this season was another branch sprouting from the Wabash Valley’s most legendary coaching tree, that of Joe Hart.
Joe never got much credit for his work at Dugger, but he took Brody Boyd, Clark Golish and the Bulldogs to a state championship game in 2000, and since then three of his former players — Joe Pigg, Clint Swan and now Joey Hart, his son — also have coached teams in the final game of the season.
Joe probably wishes he could take credit for Doc Nash, another down-home type who gave a banjo lesson earlier Saturday in leading Borden past a bigger, more athletic Triton team (banjo lesson is a Howard Sharpism, for you younger readers), but his lineage is still the best I can think of around here.
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Tough bunch of people
I’m getting my warm clothes ready for a trip to Linton this week, and if a few thrills from the Miners, Casey or North Vermillion happen the next couple of weeks, I hope I get to see them.
But high school football is over in Vigo County for the season — as coach Chris Barrett of Terre Haute North said, prematurely — and I’m sadder to see it go than usual.
Walking the sidelines and doing midweek or postgame interviews enables me to meet quite a few of the guys whose names you are about to read, and haven’t been more impressed than I was this fall. What outstanding groups of young men. What a tough, tough bunch of people.
Many know that one of my favorite athletic adjectives appeared consecutively in the previous sentence.
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