Despite losing three valuable seniors to graduation, the Connersville Spartans began the basketball season with high expectations.
Coming off a 16-11 campaign that saw the team win the Eastern Indiana Athletic Conference title and make it to the championship game of the Class 4A sectional at New Castle, CHS returned a nucleus of experienced talent and looked forward to an excellent year.
The Spartans have succeeded, and will take a 21-5 record into Saturday’s regional at Southport Fieldhouse.
Connersville’s opponent, the tournament host Southport Cardinals, were rated No. 1 in the Associated Press Class 4A preseason poll, and despite an early glitch, have hovered near the top of the rankings all season, carving out a 20-6 record.
One team will move on Saturday after the Spartans and Cardinals take care of business in Game 2 of the regional, scheduled to begin at noon. Indianapolis North Central (22-3) and Terre Haute South (21-6) play Game 1 at 10 a.m.
“We’re going to have to handle their defensive pressure and we also have to handle the pressure of the new experience of playing in the regional,” said Connersville head coach Kerry Brown. “Southport is a big team and an athletic team and that can cause a lot of problems for us if we don’t play well.”
Along with handling the Cardinals’ pressure defense and not turning the ball over, the Spartans are faced with a few other musts to get win No. 22. CHS has to:
• Be patient, execute its offense and make shots;
• Play aggressively, draw fouls and make free throws;
• Play physical defense and contest every rebound;
• Contain or slow down 6-10, 240-pound center Joey Brunk, and 6-4, 180-pound guard Paul Scruggs.
Brunk, who’s headed to Butler University to play for coach Chris Holtmann, averages 16.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots. Scruggs, a junior who’s rated as the nation’s 36th best player in the Class of 2017 by ESPN 60 averages nearly 18 points a contest.
Scruggs, who has received scholarship offers from Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State, Kansas, Xavier and Wake Forest, had a stretch during the sectional that saw him make just 4-of-21 shots.
But the 5-star prospect used his quickness and defensive ability to turn steals and deflections into several fast-break baskets, helping Southport break open a close game and beat Ben Davis, 63-52, in the sectional championship.
“We have to do whatever we can to try to take away their strengths and do what we can to limit everything they try to do. And we can’t do it individually, we have to do it collectively as a team,” said Brown.
The Spartans ‘Triplets’ — 6-4 leaper Grant Smith, 6-3 Beau Isaacs and 6-2 Tyler Billups — will try to prevent Brunk from setting up on the low block where he does the most damage. But Brunk, a true banger inside, has added a reliable 15- to 18-foot jump shot to his game.
Dut Mabok, a 6-9 junior, has improved significantly going head-to-head against Brunk during daily practice sessions, so coach Kyle Simpson’s Cardinals will never be void of height.
Add Luke Johnston, a 6-5 senior who rebounds well and isn’t shy about launching 3-pointers from the corners, 6-3 senior Eli Walton, Kyle Williams, a 6-4 senior who will play football at Ball State, and 6-6 junior Sergiey Slaughter, and the Cardinals won’t be shy on strength or the ability to play physical basketball.
Scruggs gets plenty of help in the backcourt from Harold Bennett — a 5-9 freshman listed as a can’t miss prospect — senior David Reyes, juniors Blake Evans and Jamie Burnett and sophomore Gabe Collins-Green.
“They’ve got multiple weapons, quickness and speed and all of their guys can play,” Brown said. “We’ve really got to protect the ball and not turn it over because turnovers get them into their transition game and really gets them going.
“Scruggs has freakish-like athletic ability and he does a great job in the open court, as well as taking it to the basket in the half court. We have to value every possession and work to get a great shot every time we have the ball.”
Smith, who exploded for 4 dunks and a game-high 20 points in the Spartans 63-55 sectional championship win over New Castle, leads Connersville’s balanced scoring attack with a 12.0 average.
The smooth-shooting Isaacs, who missed part of the 3rd quarter against the Trojans after spraining an ankle, averages 11.8 points.
The crafty Billups scores 11.5 a game. Isaacs averages 5.8 rebounds, Smith grabs 4.7 and Billups averages 3.3.
Smooth point guard Garrett Silcott averages 8.9 points, 3.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds and his backcourt partner, the always-hustling and pesky Chandler Graves, scores 2.7 points and pulls down 3.3 boards a contest.
Reserve center Dalton Huffman and backup guard Noah Belt have been the Spartans biggest contributors coming off the bench.
The CHS players and coaching staff had two goals entering the season: repeat as the EIAC champions and win the sectional. With those aspirations accomplished, a 3rd — a regional title — is now in the Spartans’ sights.
“It would be like icing on the cake to win this regional and we know we have to play as well as possible to do that,” explained Brown. “We’ve got to help out in the post on defense, we’ve got to block out, play as hard as we can and rebound the ball.
“And,” he added, “we can’t commit silly fouls and put them on the line, which is something we’ve done a good job of avoiding all season. It’s going to be a tough game but we’ll be ready to play.”
• Grant Smith: 12.0 p, 4.7 r, 3.1 a, 1.4 st, 0.9 bks
• Beau Isaacs: 11.8 p, 5.8 r, 1.1 a, 0.9 st
• Tyler Billups: 11.5 p, 3.3 r, 1.5 a, 1.1 st
• Garrett Silcott: 8.9 p, 3.5 a, 2.5 r, 1.2 st
• Chandler Graves: 2.7 p, 3.3 r, 0.8 a, 0.8 st
• Noah Belt: 2.7 p, 0.6 r
• Dalton Huffman: 1.5 p, 1.2 r
• Wes Smith: 0.8 p, 0.4 r
• Dalton Lee: 0.6 p, 0.3 r
• Gavin Wickes 0.4 p, 0.2 r
• Braxton Revalee 0.1 p
• Hunter Sullenbarger 0.0 p, 0.1 a
Notes: While the sectional title is the first for the Spartans since 1997, Southport’s sectional championship is its first in 16 years. … Since losing to Mooresville on Jan. 30, Connersville has won 8 straight games. … Southport lost to Lawrence North, 53-52, on Jan. 15, but avenged the loss 5 days later, winning, 46-41. … The Cardinals have a 13-game winning streak. … Fans at the opening game will get to watch one of the best players in the state, North Central forward Kris Wilkes The 6-8 junior is being courted by Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State, Kansas, UCLA, Xavier and Vanderbilt, with the Boilermakers possibly at the top of his list.
(Connersville action photos by Doug Jordan Photography)
Please Support Locally-Owned Businesses in Connersville and Cambridge City!
Mr. Pizza, Cambridge City