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.”