By Nick Goralczyk
ELKHART – There are 64 sectional sites in the 111th annual IHSAA Boys Basketball State Tournament and few can match the history, hype and competitive level that comes with the Elkhart Sectional and the historic North Side Gymnasium.
After a year of abnormal sports scenes, Friday night’s sectional semifinals at North Side Gym were a taste of normalcy. Rowdy student sections, bleachers full of loyal fans, games coming down to the wire. It was the night hoops fans were hoping for. It was the night hoops fans deserved. After two wild games, Saturday’s sectional final was set as Penn and Elkhart emerged victorious.
Elkhart 59, Warsaw 57
“Ooh, ahh, you wish you were a Lion!”
The confident and raucous Elkhart student section kept repeating that chant during Friday’s win over Warsaw. It was catchy and annoying, undoubtedly fulfilling its purpose. But the worst part for Tigers fans? It was a pretty good night to be a Lion.
Elkhart (13-11) came out swinging and never blinked against a talented Warsaw squad. The Tigers looked uncomfortable from the tip while the Lions looked ready for the spotlight. Elkhart was not perfect in its play, but it was better from start to finish than its counterpart and it won the battles that mattered most. The Lions forced 12 Tiger turnovers and won the rebounding battle 33-28. But what really stuck out was Elkhart’s relentless effort on the offensive boards. The Lions recorded 17 offensive rebounds, leading to 14 second-chance points.
When Elkhart wasn’t busy cleaning the offensive boards, it was playing stout defense as Warsaw struggled to get any sustainable offensive play inside the perimeter for the duration of the game. That led to a lot of poor shots from the Tigers.
Despite all of these things working against the Black and Orange, they were never out of the game thanks to Jaxon Gould.
Gould put the Tigers on his back and put the rest of the sectional on high alert for the next few years. Gould scored a game-high 32 points and added eight rebounds and four assists to boot. The sophomore did everything in his power to keep his team within striking defense but Elkhart was just able to do more and utilized its balanced attack to keep Warsaw from ever having a lead in the contest.
“I think, sometimes, the benefit goes to the aggressor,” stated Warsaw head coach Matt Moore. “And in many cases (Elkhart) was the aggressor tonight. In pursing rebounds, defensively attacking the ball, just touching the lane on their drives and their passes.”
Moore later added perhaps the only point that really mattered with Friday’s loss, “A lot of credit goes to (Elkhart).Their guys were dialed in, they made the plays when they needed to and our guys hung in their as long as they could.”
Warsaw (15-8) tied things up 36-36 late in the third quarter after a pair of made free throws from Judah Simfukwe but the Lions followed that up with a 7-0 run to take back all the momentum. The Tigers scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, 11 coming from Gould. But the Tigers were scoreless for a three minute stretch late in the quarter while Elkhart went on an 8-0 run.
The Lions went just 3-10 from the charity stripe in the final minute of the contest, allowing Warsaw to stay alive. After two misses from Elkhart with 10 seconds left, Warsaw failed to get off a quick shot, instead hitting a three as the clock expired giving the game its final, two-point, margin.
Elkhart’s success has been touched on already, but what the Lions had that Warsaw did not was consistent scoring from multiple players throughout the game. After Gould’s big night it was Bishop Walters and Simfukwe tallying nine and eight points, respectively for Warsaw. Jackson Dawson added six points while Russ Winchester scored two to round out the scoring for the Tigers.
Elkhart, on the other hand, had four players score in double digits with Cam’Ron Daniels leading all Lions with 13 points. Damarion Anderson and Malachi Emmons tallied 11 points each while Donovan Johnson scored 10. Erick Nocentelli and D’Arjon Lewis each notched seven points to help the Elkhart effort. Daniels tied with Gould for a game-high eight boards.
Elkhart will meet Penn in Saturday’s sectional championship with tip set for 7 p.m.
Penn 45, Northridge 40
It’s exciting to be among the top 10 three-point shooting teams in the entire country. But that means very little if the perimeter shots don’t fall.
That was the case for the two-time defending sectional champion Northridge Raiders. The three-point well ran dry against an upset-minded Kingsmen squad in the closely contested loss.
Penn (12-11) punched its ticket to Saturday’s title game thanks to a double-double effort from Markus Burton. Burton had 15 points, 13 rebounds and also added five assists and three steals. Joe Smith hit four shots from beyond the arc for Penn and finished with 12 points.
Northridge finishes the season with an 18-5 record, Sam Smith leading the Raiders with 14 points and Carter Stoltzfus ending with eight points in each of their final games with Ridge.
The winner of Saturday’s sectional final will advance to the regional at Michigan City next Saturday.