Wow, I almost hate to say this.
But now that the holiday tournament season has passed and we’re getting back into the grind of the regular season, isn’t basketball gonna get boring around here?
At least until the sectionals start…
No matter what happens from here on out it will be hard to top the BloomBank/DuPont Pioneer Greene County Invitational knock-down drag-out fight between the Linton Miners and Eastern Thunderbirds in the championship tilt.
As everyone who reads this publication already knows, the Thunderbirds came out on fire against Linton.
Eastern Greene came out firing on all cylinders, missing only one of eight shots in the opening quarter and connecting on 12-of-15 the first half.
The T-Birds hit all five shots from beyond the arc the opening eight minutes - one each from Deric French and Ethan Helton, and three in a row from Jeff Graham. In between, French and Graham bagged midrange jumpers and J.W. Howard knocked down three freebies.
And the T-Birds led 22-9 - until Tyler Meurer sank a three, Silas Robbins tipped one in, Josh Dieball took it to the tin, Noah Woodward canned a jumper and Meurer nailed another trey.
Eastern answered Linton’s 12-0 run with a trio of triples - two from Collin Campbell, another from Graham.
The Miners closed out the half on a 10-0 run to pull even, 33-all at intermission, and padded their cushion to six midway through the third quarter.
Meurer made a spectacular play - leaping in the air, snagging a pass and firing to Dieball for a layup and a 43-37 lead.
Graham and Helton each struck again from deep to tie the score at 51. But the Miners were able to salt the game away at the foul line.
Eastern’s stat line was impressive: 18-of-32 from the floor, 12-for-20 beyond the arc, 8-of-9 free throws...The T-Birds hit 10 of 14 3-pointers through three quarters (That’s 71.42857142857 percent for those of you who don’t remember your “Rule of Sevens" from grade school.)
Longtime Miner historian Rex Tuttle said after the game, “If all I knew was the Eastern shooting percentage and the number of free throws and three pointers they made, I'd be wondering how bad they beat Linton. The stats were incredible for a losing team.”
Graham was 6-of-11 from 3-point land. Helton was 3-of-4 from deep and Campbell nailed two of his three attempts.
It would have pretty impressive even for a winning team.
But then, the T-Birds were up against a Linton team that managed to beat Terre Haute South...more on that later…
Speaking of impressive, Caleb Hamilton put up a monster double-double against Shakamak - 27 points and 15 boards. And against Clay City in the Thunderbirds’ GCI opener, Hamilton was a power forward and a point guard rolled into one against the Eels. Taking it to the hole and scoring, getting to the line, then later kicking it out to their shooters for threes off his dribble penetration.
And against Shakamak, Graham tossed in - in the words of Andrew Bowen - a “Full House - three deuces and two treys” - in the fourth quarter to overcome Tanner Yeryar’s 38-point outburst as the T-Birds pulled out a 66-63 win.
Enough about the offensive fireworks. I’m a defensive guy at heart. And as they say in football, “Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.”
The two best defensive plays I saw came from Linton’s Tyler Meurer and Shakamak’s Lane Gilbert.
Against Eastern, Miner coach Joey Hart resorted to his old reliable 1-3-1 half-court press. And as long as his daddy Joe Hart is on the bench with Joey, I’ll have to believe the half-court trap will continue to be a staple in the Miners' defensive arsenal.
Meurer’s leaping interception and mid-air outlet pass of course came off the 1-3-1.
Gilbert made a play on Bloomfield’s Isaac Combs I’m not sure anyone this side of Meurer could have made.
Combs posted up on the low right block with Gilbert behind him. The Bloomfield passer threw it to Combs’ outside shoulder where no one but Combs could catch it, right?
Nope. Gilbert anticipated, darted into the passing lane and picked it off.
Andy Graham of the Bloomington Herald-Times and I were discussing Gilbert’s play after the game.
Graham said, “Gilbert could play for my team anytime.”
In holiday tournament action the preceding week, the Eastern Greene Thunderbirds acquitted themselves rather nicely in the McDonald's Holiday Hoops Classic at Vincennes Lincoln.
Eastern lost to defending Class 2A State Finalist Indianapolis Howe 68-53 in the opener. A flurry of turnovers led to the Hornets scoring 27 points in transition.
Hamilton put up 27 points for the T-Birds in the loss.
The Howe Hornets are ranked second in class 2A in the Sagarin Ratings.
The T-Birds took care of business, beating the middling Southridge Raiders 57-35 in the next round. Then they knocked off tournament host Vincennes Lincoln in the finale, 61-57.
Something Linton-Stockton didn’t do the previous week. The Miners lost to the Vincennes Alices 38-33 at home, leading 17-4 at one time but scoring just 16 points thereafter.
The again, the Miners knocked off Terre Haute South in the Wabash Valley Classic the next week.
I’m not sure how many 1A or 2A teams would even stand a remote chance of beating the South Braves, featuring bona-fide All-Stater Jaylen Minnett and a host of others.
Every time South tried to distance itself from its pesky small-school opponent, the Miners clawed back.
The Braves led 16-8 after the first eight minutes of play but Linton outscored South by eight in the second quarter.
South forged ahead by 11 midway through the third. The Miners not only erased the deficit, they led by four, 54-50 with 3:43 to play.
Minnett came through with a pair of freebies and a driving bucket to send the game to overtime - where Dieball sank the Braves, driving the length of the floor for the game-winner.
The next night Linton knocked off the Northview Knights, again in overtime. And they overcame Northview’s 6-8, 6-7 and 6-4 height advantage.
Sure, the Miners caught a break when Northview’s Drew Lumsdon stepped to the line with 0.3 seconds remaining and a chance to win it right there.
Lumsdon hit 1-of-2 to send the game to overtime, where the Miners sealed the win at the free throw line.
Class 3A Northview is 9-2. Its only other loss was at 3A sixth-ranked Tri-West by a single point, 59-58.
Tri-West was a semistate team a year ago. The Bruins feature Indiana University football recruit Peyton Hendershot, a 6-4 power forward.
All this means is the Linton Miners and Eastern Thunderbirds both proved they can play with the big boys during their recent holiday tournaments.
Which makes the January 27 Miners-T-Birds matchup at Eastern Greene even more compelling.
Wait a minute - didn’t I start off this column by saying the rest of basketball season was gonna be boring until the sectionals start?