by Beau Wicker
Pioneer’s boys basketball team had all the pieces in place this season.
The Panthers had a dream team of sorts and hoped to finally get over the hump in regional play for the first time in school history on the 50th anniversary of Royal Center High School’s semistate finalist season.
But the Panthers ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Clay Yeo and the Triton Trojans on Saturday night in the Class A Triton Regional final.
Yeo, a Valparaiso recruit, scored 35 points to lead the Trojans to a 53-41 win over the Panthers in front of a near capacity crowd of 3,000-plus fans.
The No. 10-ranked Trojans (19-5) won their sixth regional title and first since 2011. They’ve been state finalists in three of the last five years and won the state championship in 2008.
The No. 4-ranked Panthers finished their fine season with a 21-4 record.
Yeo entered the regional as the state’s fifth leading scorer at 26.8 points per game, and it was the Yeo Show on Saturday night against Pioneer.
“He obviously proved that he’s worthy of an Indiana All-Star bid,” Pioneer coach Pat Skaggs said. “He’s the real deal. He’s obviously the best player that we faced all year.”
The 6-foot-6 senior guard shot 13 of 17 from the field including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. He scored 10 points to get Triton out to a 21-18 lead at halftime.
He then really went to work in the second half. He opened the half with a steal and a flying two-handed slam for the Trojans. He scored all 12 of their points in the third quarter, and they led 33-30 after three.
Matt Dorris kept the Panthers in the game with a team-high 19 points in the contest. A Dorris basket in the post pulled Pioneer to within 35-32 with 6:10 remaining in the game.
But Yeo answered with a 3-pointer from the right wing coming off a screen that started a 7-0 run. When the run was over, Triton had opened up a 42-32 lead with 3:40 remaining.
The Panthers missed two contested 3-point shots and a close shot during the run.
Missed shots were a theme for the Panthers, who had torched the nets in their previous four tournament games and for most of the season. But they shot just 16 of 39 from the field (41 percent) for the game including 4 of 16 from 3-point range.
The Trojans employed a triangle-and-two defense against the Panthers. The Panthers solved North White’s triangle-and-two in a sectional game but didn’t have the same luck against Triton as they struggled to get any offense going outside of Dorris in the post.
“I think you’ve got to give a lot of credit to their defense,” Skaggs said. “I don’t think we really executed maybe like we did in the sectional like we did against some of the junk defenses that we faced. But hey, it was their night and it wasn’t our night.”
Yeo closed the game with a driving bucket and was able to draw fouls in the bonus situation and knock down free throws. His two free throws with 43.7 seconds remaining gave the Trojans a 53-38 lead.
“It’s always easy looking back. I’m already second-guessing myself on a couple things,” Skaggs said. “They had a couple other guys that could make some horse shots. I thought we might be able to contain him a little bit better than that.
“They’re just so many things he can do. He’s literally 6-5 or 6-6, and he might be the fastest kid on the floor. Then he has all kinds of offensive skills. He can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball.”
Joey Corder and Tanner Shepherd each added six points in the win for the Trojans, who shot 19 of 30 from the field (63.3 percent) including 4 of 8 from 3-point range. Skyler Reichert added five
Carter Skaggs, Stephen Whitlock and Tyler Beaupre had six points apiece for Pioneer. Whitlock added three steals. Brandon Scruggs and Mitchell Williams chipped in two points apiece.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my guys,” Pat Skaggs said. “They left it all out on the floor and these seniors had a heck of a run. You go 21-4 like they did, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”