By DOUG ZALESKI
The key point of Central’s discussion leading into Wednesday’s Class 4A sectional boys basketball game against Pendleton Heights focused on how imperative it was to set the pace with its defense.
So when the first half played out, the Bearcats found themselves a half-step behind on the defensive end chasing the Arabians around the floor. The quick fix was a lineup adjustment to start the second half, and that change propelled Central to a 67-54 victory in the Fieldhouse that moved it into the semifinals of its own sectional tournament.
“When we got in the locker room (at halftime), I said we were up three and compared to how we both played - (Pendleton Heights) played well and we didn’t - they came to beat us and we just came to compete,” Bearcats coach Chandler Thompson said. “Once we turned it on defensively, it was a beautiful thing.”
The uptick in defensive intensity began with a lineup change to start the third quarter. The Bearcats (10-13) went with a small lineup, inserting point guard KJ Jackson for 6-foot-4 forward Iverson Pointer.
Chandler wanted to space Pendleton Heights out more on offense. The Arabians took advantage in the first half by getting to open spots on the perimeter and hitting five 3-point shots (they averaged seven made 3’s per game during the regular season).
Thompson thought 6-foot-4 forward Victor Young could adequately guard Pendleton Heights 6-6 center Tristan Ross, and that would allow the Bearcats’ smaller guards (Jackson, Alonzo Golston and Jayden Long), along with wing Dylan Stafford, to better cover Pendleton Heights on the perimeter.
“That gave us the ability to get the ball and go,” Thompson said.
The plan was successful as Central expanded a 26-23 halftime edge to a whopping 44-28 cushion in the first five minutes of the third period.
Jackson had immediate success as he applied aggressive pressure on the Pendleton Heights point guard as he advanced the ball into the halfcourt.
“I wanted to make their point guards uncomfortable,” Jackson said. “I like to pressure the ball to where the point guard doesn’t want to bring the ball up. They were getting a little frustrated because they were losing the ball.”
The four-guard lineup allowed Central to run the Pendleton Heights shooters off the 3-point line. The Arabians averaged 20 attempts from the arc during the regular season but found limited opportunities to shoot from distance in the second half.
Thompson liked the pressure Jackson applied, and he also gave credit to Golston for his performance in the third and fourth quarters.
“(Golston) is a Swiss army knife; you can put him out there and he gives you so many weapons,” Thompson said. “He plays defense, can run and jump, trap, block shots, rebound, get some steals. That allows us to have other guys play off him a little bit.”
Once the Bearcats got their 16-point lead late in the third quarter, they were able to maintain a comfortable margin the rest of the way. Pendleton Heights cut the deficit to nine points with 4:30 left in the game, but Central pushed the margin to 15 at 60-45 a minute later.
The Bearcats benefited from a big game by Young, their top player. The senior hit 12-of-15 field-goal attempts while scoring a season-best 27 points. He also grabbed 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year.
“This was one of the best games he’s played,” Thompson said. “He was locked and loaded, and not just on one end. It was both ends of the floor. He didn’t settle for jumpers. He took the ball to the basket.”
Young said the key for him on offense was the way the Bearcats played defense. He said turnovers and bad shots by the Arabians sparked Central on offense.
“This is my last year, and I want to go out with a bang,” he said. “We talked since the beginning of the year that we have a good chance to win the sectional. We haven’t won it in seven years so for us, winning it here at our home … all we want to do is cut those nets down on Saturday.”
Jackson backed up Young’s performance with 14 points, five rebounds and two assists. Stafford added 13 points and four assists. The Bearcats shot 53 percent from the floor.
The Bearcats will play Richmond (17-7) at 8 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. Richmond overcame Greenfield Central 54-48. The Red Devils defeated the Bearcats 56-53 on Jan. 17 in Richmond.
The first semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday will pit Hoosier Heritage Conference foes Mount Vernon (11-11) against New Palestine (12-12).
The championship game will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.