By PEDRO VELAZCO For the Pharos-Tribune
---- — LAPEL — Cass guard Blake Hadley remembers watching the Kings win a state championship in 2003. Barely. A little bit. It’s pretty foggy.
“I remember going to the state game in ‘03,” Hadley said. He thinks he was in kindergarten at the time. Pressed for any specific memory of the venue, the people, it was too faint to remember. And yet, it made a big impression on a youngster who would later wear No. 14 for the Kings.
“I just remember playing in my backyard and always wanting to be those guys, and here we are in the final four,” Hadley said.
The Cass boys basketball squad beat Tipton 55-47 Saturday night in the championship game of the Class 2A Lapel Regional, marking the squad’s first regional championship since the 2002-03 squad won the state championship. That team went 26-0. This team is 22-2 and is riding a 20-game winning streak that has seen them to next Saturday’s semistate.
The current Kings don’t have to worry about calling up memories from 2003, they’re making their own in the here and now.
Cass broke free from a 27-all tie at halftime with a strong third quarter and then held Tipton at arm’s length for the rest of the game after rocketing into the lead with a 16-0 run in the third and fourth quarters.
Trailing 33-29, Cass guard Austin Keisling took a defensive rebound coast to coast for a hoop to cut the lead to a deuce with 3:12 left in the quarter. Then, with two minutes left, Hadley drilled a 3-pointer to put the Kings in the lead. The King train kept rolling: Evan Ohman scored inside off a Keisling feed, then hit two free throws, and pushed the lead to 40-33 when Keisling rescued a nervous possession by dicing through the Cass defense and feeding Victor DeJesus for a deuce at the buzzer.
Evan Ohman hit a triple to start the fourth quarter and Hadley added two more free throws to put the Kings up by 11.
“The 3 that Blake Hadley hit was a game-changer,” Cass coach Jon Kitchel said. “The 3 that Evan Ohman hit over there [in the corner] was a game changer.
“We felt a big momentum change [when that run started]. It was similar to when we played them the first time [in the regular season]. We were down at halftime going in — we haven’t been down very often — but these guys never get excited, never get down on themselves, they always believe that whether they’re up or down, that they’re going to finish things.”
Tipton leading scorer Taylor Degenkolb fouled out with 6:15 left in the fourth quarter but the Blue Devils kept the intensity up, trimming the lead to four points, 47-43 off a 3-pointer by Jon Ross with 3:53 left. That was as close as they’d git as Cass scored the next seven points at the line.
Cass put the ball in the hands of ballhandlers Keisling, Ryan Bixler and Hadley for long stretches in the fourth quarter and felt confident that would lead to victory.
“Whenever we got up by 10, I pretty much knew if we hit free throws the game was pretty much over,” Hadley said.
That trio accounted for 37 points as Keisling scored 13, and Bixler and Hadley 12 each.
The composed Cass finish was in contrast to a frustrating first half for both sides. Both teams had committed seven or more fouls by the time the first quarter was over and foul trouble hurt both squads. Keisling and Degenkolb both picked up two fouls in the opening quarter.
“The guys on the bench really had to step up,” Kitchel said. “We got great minutes from Destin Irwin and Drew McRae, Jake Martin, those three all came in and gave us big minutes. Keisling, he probably only played 25 percent of the first half [due to foul trouble] and to come in tied at the half, we were very happy.”
There was plenty of game left so the Kings stayed afloat until the break.
“Austin got in foul trouble, two other players got in foul trouble, so we knew we had to step up,” Bixler said. “We had to hit some big shots and keep it close so we could pull it out in the second half.”
Cass committed 13 fouls in the first half, but just two the second. Tipton had 25 for the game.
“We were never comfortable with the style of this game,” Tipton coach Brad Dickey said. “The whistles came often and sometimes confusingly, and Lewis Cass is a great team. They knew what to do. They knew how to handle it and all we did was play as hard as we possibly could, but not always as smart as we could.
“It was just hard to be in a positive rhythm. Even though we managed a couple of leads, we were just never in a situation that we wanted to be in.”
Degenkolb scored 19 points to lead Tipton. Brody Dell added 10 and Jon Ross nine, including five in the fourth quarter as the Devils tried to get back even.
Evan Ohman scored seven points and six rebounds off the bench for the Kings and DeJesus added six points.