CULVER — Triton played a pretty solid first half against sectional rival Oregon-Davis in Friday’s semifinal match-up at Culver Community.
The Trojans shot at a better-than 42 percent clip from the floor — including 3-of-10 3-pointers — turned the ball over just six times and committed only five fouls. But in spite of all that, the Bobcats still led by a 13-point margin at halftime. The defending Sectional 51 champs didn’t make it any easier on them in the second half.
OD pushed its lead out to as many 26 points in the second half, finished with four players in double figures and never trailed on the way to a 63-45 win over Triton, earning the right to advance to Saturday’s championship where they’ll defend their title against Elkhart Christian, a 58-53 winner over Argos in Friday’s late semifinal at Culver.
“They’re a good basketball team,” said Triton coach Jason Groves. “That’s what I told these kids: ‘What is it about these guys?’ And they all said ‘They’re skilled. They can shoot the ball. They can dribble the ball.’ And that’s kind of where we’re lacking a little bit.
“Give them credit, they’re a good basketball team. They have some really good players on that team.”
More than a few, it turns out.
With Triton chasing OD shooters Jonathon Clark and Trevor Risner early, point guard Lance Campbell stepped up his offensive production with 11 first-half points. Freshman Dylan Murphy knocked down a pair of big first quarter 3s, too, as part of 7-of-13 3-point shooting by the Bobcats in the first half. The defending champs simply had too many weapons for the Trojans to keep pace.
“They shot the ball well, and that’s kind of what I was dreading because we can’t really match up with them very well. I was hoping we’d be able to contest them a little bit more than what we did early,” explained Groves.
Campbell finished with a team-leading 18 points to go with five assists. Fellow seniors Clark and Risner notched 14 and 13, respectively, and Murphy — a freshman playing in his first sectional outing — chipped in 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting as the Bobcats beat Triton for the fourth straight time Friday.
“We’ve seen it like you would expect out of a freshman — it’s here and then it’s gone,” said OD coach Joe Eskridge of Murphy’s performance. “There were a couple times where we were having thoughts maybe give him a couple quarters of JV because he was struggling a little bit. But the situation we’ve got we’re not so deep so do you sacrifice some of his legs? I have full confidence in him. He’s a freshman, but he’s a really nice player and not just a shooter.”
Triton, by contrast, got most of its production from senior Ross Johnson, who poured in a game-high 23 points to go with five rebounds and two steals Friday. But after perhaps their most balanced scoring performance of the season in a win over South Central at Tuesday’s Sectional 51-opener, the Trojans struggled to find a whole lot of production from anyone else. Beau Hepler chipped in nine points but needed 11 shots to get there, and Drew Stichter scored six, but that was about it for Triton.
“That’s what we’ve struggled with all year long,” said Groves of finding offensive balance. “Tuesday night we had that. We played really well. We shot the ball well. We played with confidence. Tonight I thought it was kind of back to our old selves where ‘Ross, you create, and we’re not going to try to do anything.’ But it is what it is. That’s a good basketball team. I give them credit, they fought hard.”
With Triton trailing 52-28 in the fourth and a lot of ground to make up, the Trojans went to a 1-3-1 trap to try and turn the Bobcats over. OD did surrender five giveaways in the final stanza, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up the difference. They went four corners early, limited the number of possessions and never looked rattled en route to the convincing win.
“We have the senior leadership. We have guys that have been in this environment before. You’re not going to really throw a 1-3-1 press out there and it’s going to rattle them a whole lot. They got us a little bit and then we were able to settle down,” explained Eskridge.
“A lot of times what our struggles were is these guys are so confident they don’t really want to slow down. Especially when you’ve got a 14-point lead, in the tournament you’ve just got to be smart. You know somebody is there, and they’re not wanting to go home so they’re going to make a run. You just eat up those runs holding the ball. That’s the easiest way to make sure they don’t get us is you don’t just give them the ball back.”
“That’s one thing about them, it’s not just shooting and dribbling. They pass the ball, they see the court well. They know where each other is going to be,” Groves said.
“I struggled what to do with them. We planned a little bit of 2-3. We had a diamond and one, a triangle and two. We had man-to-man, but nothing seemed to work. It didn’t really matter what we did; they just picked whatever we did apart.”
While OD (11-11), advances to play Elkhart Christian (16-6) tonight, Triton (7-15) closes out a tough season, the program’s first under .500 year since Groves’ first full season as head coach in 2005-06. The Trojans struggled with an inexperienced lineup and dealt with more than their fair share of off-the-court challenges as well, including the loss of their home gym to flooding damage in early January.
Throughout it all, however, Groves said the team continued to battle.
“They fought all year long even though we only won seven games. They never gave up,” he said. “Someone mentioned to us on Monday, a younger coach in our coaching staff came into our practice and said the level of engagement in our practice was amazing for being a six-win team.”
The Trojans now must say goodbye to four seniors in Warsaw transfer Johnson, Stichter, Dylan Hensley and Max Slusser, a group that helped lay a foundation for Triton basketball’s future.
“A good group of kids. They worked hard.,” Groves said. “I know that this season didn’t go the way they wanted, but like I told them they made our program stronger because throughout all the adversity we had this year and the rough season with the gym and stuff. They still fought hard and battled and tried to get these younger kids better and showed them the right way to do things. I know the season didn’t go the way they’d like it, but I appreciate all the work they’ve done throughout the years.”