The Dream Ends

By Eric Christiansen

The dream run ended for Southwood Saturday, March 25, at the IHSAA Boys Basketball Class 1A State Finals.
The Knights, who entered the state tournament with a 10-12 record, had a five-point lead with 5:40 remaining in the second quarter against Indianapolis Lutheran in the championship game, but from that point on, the Saints took over, ending Southwood’s run with a 97-66 win.
Southwood started the season with an 0-5 record before figuring things out as the season went on with first-year head coach Christian Perry.
“It’s hard to put into perspective what they’ve done,” Perry said after the game in Indianapolis. “Starting out 0-5 and going into sectional play under .500… then we go on this run of eight games. Then to get down here … it’s just amazing what they’ve done.”
Both Class 1A teams showed the nerves that come with playing on such a big stage in Gainbridge Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, home of the Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever, with a slow start offensively.
The Saints took a 3-0 lead before Southwood’s Dylan Stout got the Knights on the board with 5:17 left in the first quarter.
After a Lutheran basket, Cole Winer scored inside to cut it to 5-4, but the Saints answered to take a 7-4 lead with 3:45 left in the quarter.
A timely time out from Perry worked as the Knights scored the next six points on two baskets from Jason Oprisek and another from Stout to take a 10-7 lead.
“They got off to a 7-4 lead, then we got some turnovers and a layup and got the lead on them,” Perry said. “At that point we thought ‘okay, we can play with these guys.’”
Tied at 12-12, Cole Winer gave the Knights a 15-12 lead with a three-point play, followed by a fast break layup from Will Winer with a steal and assist from his brother Cole, to give Southwood its largest lead of the game at 17-12.
Lutheran answered with a 7-0 run to take a 20-17 lead before Stout stopped the bleeding, temporarily, with a reverse layup with 4:30 remaining in the first half to put it at 20-19.
Back-to-back baskets from Lutheran’s LJ Ward, including a fast break dunk, one of many from the Saints on the morning, increased the Southwood deficit to 24-19.
Will Winer hit 1-2 free throws while Cole Winer scored inside to keep the Knights close, trailing 26-22 with 3:07 left in the first half.
Then, the wheels fell off for Southwood, while Lutheran’s tires pumped up to capacity.
The Saints turned up their defensive pressure to overwhelm the Knights over the final 2:56 of the second quarter, outscoring Southwood, 19-4, to take a 45-26 halftime lead.
“They turned it up a notch,” Perry said. “That defensive pressure – I think we had 17 turnovers in the first half and our goal is less than 10 in a game. To have that many in one half, especially when you are playing a really good team, it’s hard to compete.”
“It felt like we were right there with them but they started getting turnover after turnover,” Southwood senior Jason Oprisek said. “When we did get a shot, it wasn’t a good one. They just kept getting easy buckets and is just went downhill from there.”
“I think their quickness is something that we have not seen and they were really good at splitting our defense, and obviously, you saw our press wasn’t too effective,” Cole Winer said. “It helped us some but they just played it really well.”
In the second half, Lutheran increased the lead to 52-26 but the Knights showed they still had life.
Nathan Lehner stopped the Saints’ scoring run with a bucket followed by two free throws from Cole Winer and a three-pointer from Lehner, but Lutheran answered with four quick points.
Oprisek scored back-to-back baskets but missed opportunities to convert both into three-point plays with missed free throws.
Thirty seconds later Will Winer was fouled, scored, but also missed the free throw, an area that hurt the Knights all morning, as the team shot 15-28 from the charity stripe.
Meanwhile, Lutheran hit 17-29 on the day.
“They shot well from the free throw line,” Perry said of the Saints. “They’re not a very good free throw shooting team, percentage wise, but they were falling for them today.
“The points we got beat by, free throws wouldn’t have mattered, but it could have made it closer,” he added. “But they are a really good team and they are state champions for a reason.”
The Knights continued to battle and tried to get back into the game but Lutheran had an answer for each Southwood score over the final three minutes of the third quarter to take a 77-49 lead, and went on to claim the school’s first basketball state champions.
“We weren’t able to handle them very well,” Perry said. “We haven’t seen that this season. We knew they were going to be aggressive but you can’t replicate it in practice. They were very aggressive, and inside, they were getting to the basket on us. It seemed that everything that could happen was happening for them.”
Perry said he wouldn’t change too much from the game.
“We had to continue what got us here. You can’t change the game play. Now I would have (changed) since we saw what we did didn’t work, and we’re not going to do it again,” he said. “We wouldn’t have lost by this much if we sat back and let them shoot threes, except for (Durray) Smith (who hit five 3-pointers), but we came to play and we came to win.
“We had to play the style that got us here and that’s what we’re comfortable doing,” he added, “I can second-guess everything for probably the rest of my life but we had to do what got us here. Once we got down, you can’t sit back. You have to come back at them and try to get turnovers. The flip side was that we were giving up layups.”
After the game, the Southwood seniors shared their thoughts on the tournament run and the season.
“Coming from a small community, we don’t do this too often so it has a bigger meaning,” Stout said. “Starting off the season the way we did, this is great. We weren’t expected to go too far in the tournament at all. To make it to the state championship game with these guys, it means so much.”
“To start off the year like we did, it’s been really fun,” Cole Winer said. “People in Wabash were calling us the worst team in Wabash County. This run means so much to me.”
Oprisek added, “Throughout the year you could see us more and more improving. I still don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet. I think we could have played better if we had two or three more weeks.”
Lehner summed it up. “To start off 0-5 and to be here, it’s unreal.”
Perry added his thoughts on the magical run.
“Playing for Southwood, I never won a sectional game. To lead these guys down here to the state finals is still unreal. It’s going to take a while to set in,” the Southwood coach said. “In our little community – we have 240 kids in our school and they all went to our school. They grew up together. They know each other’s parents’ names, know where they live. They know everything about each other.
“For this community, along with these guys, and Southwood on their jerseys, it means a lot to everybody in our community to be down here,” he continued. “We’re only the second program to come to the state finals in basketball (in Wabash County) and both of them have been ours in the last five years. Everybody was behind us and supporting us. It’s definitely crazy that this happened but these boys were determined. That’s what they wanted.
“I set goals at the begging of the season,” Perry added. “The last goal I put up there was to win sectional. I don’t put up regional or anything beyond that.  We did that but they weren’t done. They wanted to get down here.
“They didn’t drive the bus but they got us down here.”
Oprisek led the Knights with 17 points, five rebounds, and two steals on the day, while Cole Winer had 15 points and six rebounds, followed by Will Winer with 13 points, six rebounds, and six assists, Stout with eight points, eight rebounds, three steals, and two assist, Lehner with eight points and six rebounds, Jaret Denney with four points, Bryce Wilcox with four rebounds, one assist, and one steal, and Randy Boone, Dalton Barney, and Keaton Metzger each with one rebound while Barney added an assist.
The Knights finish the season with a 15-13 record and memories to last a lifetime.

Posted on 2023 Mar 28