By BRYAN GASKINS
INDIANAPOLIS — The Class 4A championship in the 97th annual IHSAA Boys Basketball State Finals lived up to expectations Saturday night.
Purdue recruit E’Twaun Moore and East Chicago Central beat Indiana recruit Eric Gordon and North Central 87-83 in front of an energized crowd of 17,997 at Conseco Fieldhouse.
“It was a tremendous game for the fans, a tremendous game for Indiana high school basketball, a big game for IU and Purdue. It was just very, very good for everybody,” ECC coach Pete Trgovich said.
Moore turned in a dominant performance to lead the Cardinals to their first state championship. The 6-foot-3 guard showed a smooth offensive game and finished with 28 points. He connected on 10 of 17 shots from the field, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range, and he made 5 of 7 free throw attempts. He also had five rebounds.
“Big players step it up in big games. That is what he did,” Trgovich said.
Moore flashed a wide smile when asked about his performance.
“This is one of my best,” he said, “but it doesn’t get more exciting than being in the state championship and to win and to perform well.”
Gordon led North Central with 25 points. He made 8 of 16 shots from the field, but just 3 of 10 from 3-point range, and he knocked down all six of his charity attempts. He had six rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots, but he also had five turnovers.
North Central led 21-20 after the opening quarter, but East Chicago Central dominated the second quarter to take a shocking 50-32 lead into halftime.
“The first half, we couldn’t play any better. Our defense, our offense, everything clicked,” Trgovich said. “And then North Central turned it around on us.”
Indeed, the Panthers battled back in the second half. They outscored the Cardinals 23-13 in the third quarter to draw within 63-55 and they continued to cut into the deficit in the fourth quarter. The Panthers forged ties at 69 and 71 midway through the final stanza, but Moore sparked a 5-0 run that made it 76-71. The Cardinals maintained a slim lead the rest of the way. Sophomore guard Derrell Conner scored a crucial hoop-and-harm three-point play with 2:02 remaining to help the Cardinals keep the Panthers at bay.
Moore received solid support from 6-11 forward Angel Garcia and 6-4 center Kawaan Short. Garcia scored 25 points and took nine rebounds and Short, who is built like a tank yet has nimble feet and good hands, scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Garcia and Short combined to shoot 19 of 36 from the field.
“This is a team game,” Trgovich said. “Again, it wasn’t going to be Eric versus E’Twaun, it was going to be [North Central] against [East Chicago] and that [balance] was the difference in the game, I feel.”
Moore fittingly wore one of the nets around his neck following the game. Gordon likely had the Mr. Basketball award wrapped up before the state finals, but Moore showed he deserved consideration too — and more importantly, his team won.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. It don’t get better than this. … For my whole team, my whole city to be here behind me [is great]. Everyone can enjoy this win.”
Moore also picked up the Arthur L. Trester Mental Attitude Award following the game. He carries a 3.2 GPA and ranks No. 33 in his senior class of 236.
“Oh man, that was great,” Moore said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know when I came that I was going to get the award. That caught me by surprise.”
East Chicago (23-3) avenged a regular-season loss to North Central with the championship win. The Panthers beat the Cardinals 73-62 on Dec. 29 at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Gordon scored 50 points in that game.
“E’Twaun Moore had a bad ankle and he did not play his best game,” Trgovich said. “We played a weak 2-3 zone for a fraction of a time; [Gordon] hit three [3-pointers] and I panicked. I came out of it. [Also] Angel Garcia drove up that afternoon. He drove 21/2 hours to get there. It was a different story [Saturday].”