By Josh Brown
CLAYTON — Troy Christian boys basketball coach Ray Zawadzki was visibly emotional after Saturday’s postseason loss.
He simply wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his team this year.
“They’re all tough, but this one hurts a bit more because this is such a special group of kids,” he said. “They exceeded expectations all year. It’s just sad that one of their worst games came in the opening round of the tournament.”
The fifth-seeded Eagles saw their 16-game winning streak snapped in the first round of the Division III sectional tournament Saturday at Northmont High School as No. 17 Indian Lake took control early and never relinquished it, handing Troy Christian a shocking 56-49 defeat and ending its season early.
The Lakers (11-12) advance to the tournament’s second round to face Waynesville Wednesday. But Troy Christian, which saw its season end at 20-3,it battled to the finish, whittling what had been a 15-point third-quarter lead at 38-23 all the way down to three at 42-39 with 5:40 to play.
“The challenge was there, and our kids had a lot of heart,” Zawadzki said. “We cut it to three, a one-possession ballgame, but we couldn’t get the big stop we needed. We kept battling — give our kids credit for that. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
In the end, Troy Christian’s record-setting defense which allowed only 39 points per game this season couldn’t contain Indian Lake’s Clay Jacobs, who hit three 3s, went to the free throw line for 14 attempts when the Eagle defense was a step slow to cut him off on the drive and scored a game-high 21 points, with 15 of them coming in the first half to help the Lakers turn a 17-17 tie after one into a 32-21 lead at the break.
“They had too many catch-and-shoots and direct line drives,” Zawadzki said. “We worked all week on our gameplan, but give them a lot of credit. They really played well. Like our assistant coaches said, nobody in our league played us that well all year.
“When you look at what we were able to do defensively all year, we set a school record for giving up the least amount of points per game. We only gave up 39 points per game, but unfortunately this was the third-most points we gave up all year.”
The uncharacteristic struggles didn’t just bite the Eagles on defense, though. Leading scorer James Anderson — a 6-foot-9 post player who averaged a double-double in the regular season — was held to only eight points, with the majority of them coming on putbacks due to his 12 rebounds, and with only two of those points coming in the second half.
“James was in a position where they were able to double and triple team him, and we really stood around too much when he got the ball,” Zawadzki said. “As a coaching staff, you’re always trying to get them to move more and dive to the basket. There were times where we’d get an easy look, but there were too many times where we were all standing around and watching James.
“All year, they know that when he gets the ball and they’re sending two or three guys at him, you can’t be the Statue of Liberty. You’ve got to be more active — and we just weren’t tonight.”
That lack of aggression proved costly, too, as Indian Lake consistently got to the free throw line throughout the game. Troy Christian was 0 for 1 from the line in the first half and 3 for 7 through three, and while the Lakers may have shot poorly, too, going 6 for 13 in the first half and 8 for 15 through three, the volume of opportunities was too much to overcome.
That didn’t stop the Eagles from trying, though.
After a jumper by Austin Parker gave the Lakers a 38-23 lead in the middle of the third, Troy Christian began to fight back, closing the quarter on a 10-2 run to cut the lead to seven at 40-33 entering the final eight minutes, with Jackson Kremer closing the quarter with a steal and three-point play. Colt Tanner then opened the fourth with a drive to trim the deficit to five, and after a score by Jacobs, Ben Schenk hit two consecutive shots to make the score 42-39 with 5:40 to go.
But the Eagles were called for three fouls in a row on the next Indian Lake possession, sapping every last bit of momentum that they’d built, and Collin Coburn hit an open 3 to begin a 7-0 run by the Lakers to push the lead back to 10 with 3:30 to play. Jackson Kremer hit a 3 and Trent Huelskamp hit another to get the lead back down to five at 50-45 with 1:36 to play, but Troy Christian was forced to foul to get the ball back — and Indian Lake hit 7 of 11 attempts in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
For the game, Troy Christian was 3 for 11 from the line, while Indian Lake was 15 for 31.
“This was one of the few times in his career that James didn’t even shoot a free throw,” Zawadzki said. “We knew who we had to foul, and we were fouling the right guys. But that pressure of tournament games makes things feel different, makes you miss free throws and layups that you don’t normally, makes you play differently than you normally do. And I think our kids looked at the scoreboard a little too early, said ‘oh my gosh, we’re down,’ started pressing a little too early internally, and as much as we tried to keep them relaxed and in the flow, we struggled all night with it tonight.”
Tanner scored 11 of his team-high 13 points in the second half, and Kremer added 12 points and nine rebounds. Anderson and Schenk added eight points, Huelskamp and Chace Varvel each scored three and Cameron Strine scored two.
After Jacobs’ 21 points, Coburn had 11 points and six rebounds, Nate Reichert scored 10 points, Kale Schoffner had eight and Parker scored six.
It proved to be the final game in the career of Troy Christian seniors Anderson, Strine, Tanner, Schenk, Huelskamp and Nathan Scott.
“Obviously, to run off 16 straight wins, that exceeded our expectations this season,” Zawadzki said. “And we exceeded something that not a lot of people talk about. We became a family. And that’s not easy to do in high school sports today. But we had 13 kids that loved coming to practice each day. We exceeded that unity expectation.
“It hurts. I love every one of these kids.”
Which makes saying goodbye that much harder.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.
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