By GENE F. CONARD KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — SHARPSVILLE — They had met before, and somehow Tri-Central’s Trojans had pulled off a 60-57 overtime success against these same Clinton Prairie Gophers in the mid-season Clinton Central Holiday Tourney.
But this time coach Kyle Zahn’s Trojans decided the best way to succeed was just to say no.
So here Friday night the Trojans stepped up in their final Hoosier Heartland Conference contest, and loud and clearly said no to the Gophers to the tune of a mere 13 field goals in 41 hurried attempts including a mere six buckets in their final 22 attempts. The Trojans had four fewer shots (37) but five more baskets (18) for a hefty 48.6-percent mark and had a huge advantage at the free throw stripe, 15 of 22 compared to 7 of 8 for the Gophers — all of which added up to a 54-42 TC victory
The win upped the Trojan record to 8-9 overall and a 4-1 conference mark, good for runner-up honors to Rossville’s HCC-champion Hornets, which finished a perfect 5-0. The Gophers slipped to 5-10 and 2-3.
A pleased Zahn said afterward: “I was real happy with our defense which took their outside game entirely away. I think they had only four field goals inside the arc all night. [Cody] Howell and [Garrett] Dick did an especially good job with their constant pressure, and [Bryce] Dowell and [Colten] Leininger came off the bench in the first half to give us good offensive spark.
“Another big thing was that our bench outscored theirs, 15-0, and [Dillon] Smith came up big in the fourth quarter with 12 of his game-high 16 points which kept the game out of Prairie’s reach. It was a great effort, but I don’t think we have peaked yet. We’re just on the way up. And if we can stay focused and play like we did [Friday] night we’ll be tough to beat in the sectional,” he finished.
Simply put, the Trojans turned the Gopher offense into an out-and-out scramble from the opening tip, resulting in few, if any, uncontested shots. Prairie did get out to smallish early leads of 5-3 and 8-6 on a meager first-period effort of 3 for 8 from the floor, but was tainted by by six turnovers.
The Trojans hit just 2 of 8 first-quarter shots and still managed an 8-8 tie at the first stop. The turning point came midway through the second period with Prairie in front, 17-12. Dalton Davis threaded a trey, and Seth Blunck, Smith and Leininger hit to ignite a 12-3 run for a 24-20 TC halftime command.
TC, led by the three hoops of Leininger, four points by Davis, three by Dowell and baskets by Smith and Blunck, went a torrid 7 of 11 for the period, and the Gophers were held to four fielders in 10 tries. Prairie had just seven baskets in the first 16 minutes, and nine costly errors only added to its problem.
Tri-Central quickly upped the spread to 31-20 to start the third period, and Prairie didn’t touch the net until sophomore Kale Morris nailed a trey with 2:42 remaining. He followed with another 3 to make it 31-26, but Howell meshed his second trey of the quarter to give it a 34-26 look heading into the final period.
The telling blow came when Smith and Blunck ran off eight quick tallies to open the final act, and the lead grew to a spacious 45-28 with 4:35 to play. Prairie had just two baskets in 10 third-quarter attempts and finished with just four hoops in its final 12 tries.
Smith took over the Trojan offense in the final act with two buckets and 8 of 11 free throws, and Blunck added the final five of his 10 tallies. Morris tried to keep the Gophers alive with the final seven of his 16 points, but other than that CP managed just four free ones and a field goal.
Of the Gophers’ 41 shots, 21 came from behind the arc and only seven found the bucket. Conversely, the Trojans went 4 of 10 on 3-pointers but were 14 of 17 otherwise. TC also outrebounded the bigger Gophers, 22-19, and had five fewer turnovers, 16-11.
Smith finished with 16, and Blunck had 10 to go with the eight of Leininger, seven of Howell and Dowell and six of Davis. Morris had 16 to lead Prairie, and Austin Martin had 10 to go with the seven of Merrick McGraw and six of Jacob Price.
FINAL Cl. Prairie 42 Tri-Central 54 Next: TC hosts Eastern Friday