Cardinals lose in sectional final, but their fans remain proud
Two years ago it sounded a bit strange after winning only one game that Southport’s boys basketball echoes of the past would soon be heard.
This season, the Cardinals achieved just that – a standing-room-only crowd Feb. 28 at their 88-80 win over then-No. 1 Evansville Reitz and again Saturday night at Perry Meridian, where Southport fans turned out for a classic 4A sectional championship showdown against Pike.
Coached by former Perry Meridian and Center Grove mentor Bill Zych, Pike prevailed 49-48 due to a defensive blitz in the last two minutes and a last-second tip by Southport that rolled off the rim.
In many ways, Southport can take pride in seeing most of this season’s mission accomplished:
• The team was No. 1 in the state coaches poll at mid-season and at the end of the regular season.
• Conference Indiana champs.
• Hall of Fame tourney champs in New Castle.
• Reaching back-to-back sectional championship games.
“It’s a testament to what they have done for this community, and that’s been my goal,” said coach Kyle Simpson in an emptying locker room at Perry Meridian. “You saw how many fans were here and how many were at the Reitz game. There’s a lot of firsts for these guys; a lot of positives.”
Southport’s rejuvenated followers can look to the future with the return of 6-10 junior Joey Brunk and 6-3 sophomore Paul Scruggs, but Cardinal Nation was stunned within a 21-second period in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game.
Southport led 44-41 when Pike’s Justin Roberts drove for a lay-up. Alert Pike defenders Justin Roberts and Tahjai Teague intercepted successive backcourt passes that they converted into easy lay-ups and a three-point lead for the Red Devils with 94 seconds left.
Southport’s Malik Bennett canned a 3-pointer with 42 seconds left for the final count, 49-48, but the drama was not over.
The Cardinals had life when Pike missed a free throw and Scruggs grabbed the rebound. With 13.9 seconds left, Simpson called time. Bennett fired an errant shot that went off the backboard to teammate Eli Walton, whose put-back bounced on the rim twice and fell off.
“They got us spread out; we made two bad turnovers at the wrong time and they capitalized,” Simpson said. “I thought defensively we played as well as we could. We played a team that averages 70 points and held them to 49 points. We missed some gimmies, but we took it to Pike.
“I thought tonight was going to be the night – I believed in it. It just didn’t go our way. I’m proud of the kids for the effort they put out there on the floor.”
Simpson then recounted the team’s journey from early June at Bethel College, a 10-game, three-day championship in the Michigan State University high school team camp and their eventual return to Southport, where they went 23-3.
Bennett had a game-high 22 points against Pike, with Scruggs scoring 14. Brunk had nine points and 10 rebounds. Thomas led Pike with 21 points; Teague added 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
The score was tied five times, and there were four lead changes. Southport had the biggest lead of the game at 20-14.
Pike hit a hot 20-of-38 field goals, 52.6 percent, while Southport connected on only 20-of-54, 37.0 percent. Pike barely won the battle of the boards, 23-21. The Cards had nine turnovers.
“We can make plays offensively, but this team can make plays defensively,” Zych said. “We got those two steals and scored and then we just had to play and defend. We did a good job defensively on Bennett and made him struggle to get his points and on Brunk all night long.”
Pike has jinxed Southport three times in a row – the Red Devils garnered last year’s sectional, won a historic four-overtime game in this season’s Marion County semifinal and edged the Cardinals for the sectional trophy Saturday.
Ironically, Pike comes to Southport Fieldhouse on Saturday to meet Brownsburg in regional action at 10 a.m., with Richmond facing Lawrence North at noon.
The Cardinals reached the final game by dominating Ben Davis 45-27 Friday for their first state tournament win over the Giants since 1947. Ben Davis’ 27 points were the team’s lowest output since Feb. 15, 1950, when scoring 22 points against Cathedral, according to basketball historian Jim Pich.