sports blog by andy shenk

Qualls Rescues Central on Senior Night

In At The Game, Elkhart Basketball on February 2, 2013 at 5:22 PM

Due to a delay at home, Nikki and I made it to North Side Gym on Friday night with just a few minutes to spare before the start of the boys varsity game between Elkhart Central and South Bend Washington. We missed Senior Night, but settled in about five rows behind the Blazer bench, in time for the national anthem and lineup introductions.

Since arriving in Elkhart on New Year’s Eve, house-sitters on the St. Joseph’s River until early April, we’ve caught five Central home games. On January 3, I nervously walked through the North Side Gym doors for the first time, hoping the 7200-seat arena would match the stories I’d heard and the excitement I had for this chance to follow Central basketball in 2013. The bleachers don’t fill up like I’d hoped and the fans are generally quiet, but any disappointment has long since dissipated. The thrill I find in the sturdy wooden bleachers and squeaky parquet floor is rooted in the simple moments and habits, the scenes repeated in high school gyms across the country.

Each evening at the gym has its rhythm: The coaches’ sharp suits, pinstripe warm-ups for the team; the four flags suspended above half court rising to the rafters during the anthem; fist bumps between each starter and the refs after lineup introductions; middle-schoolers, nearly hidden in the shadows, lining the top row of bleachers opposite us; the Blue Blazer mascot, dancing spontaneously, head ensconced in a red and yellow zig-zag bolt; the young trumpet player behind the basket shaking his butt at the opposing team’s free throw shooters. When I greedily fingered my Central basketball season ticket at Christmas, I thought mostly of the gym, the crowd, and the game. It’s been the unexpected delights, though, the cowbell player elevated on a wooden platform, banging his heart out to “Dynamite” and Katy Perry’s “Firework,” that have made the past month more than I could have hoped. 7000 fans don’t flood into North Side Gym on a Friday night in January anymore, and they may never again, but the games being played and the fans that do come still matter. Last night was no exception.

The Blue Blazers started four seniors: Center Brian Harter, forwards John Stahl and Blake Brouwer and point guard Terrell Street. Junior guard Tre Taylor rounded out the group. South Bend Washington, meanwhile, earned a technical shortly after tip-off for handing the official scorekeeper the wrong lineup card.

Neither team looked very comfortable in the beginning. After the procedural technical, Panther coach Chad Johnston earned his team a second one for arguing a foul call too vehemently. For most of the first half, the visitors felt disrespected in the paint; junior forward Montel Green picked up a third technical near the end of the second quarter for shoving a Central player. I sympathized with his frustration: After his three-ball at the end of the first period brought Washington with three points, 16-13, the Panthers were walloped 19-4 in the second.

Central, in fact, closed the half on a 16-0 run. Brouwer got it started with an NBA-range ‘3’, Street followed with two points, then 6-9 Brian Harter brought the crowd to their feet with three blocks during one Central defensive stand. Green received his tech on the next Blazer possession and the home team capitalized, collecting five points on three free throws and another bucket from Street. In just 90 seconds, Central’s two-point lead ballooned to 12.

After the first half, South Bend Washington’s boisterous cheerleaders quieted down. They’d had control of the gym in the early-going, even though the visiting fans were outnumbered 4-1. But in the third quarter, their team trailing by 20 points after John Stahl drove to the rim for two, they, too, appeared to give up hope. The arena grew quiet. Both coaches kept talking to their guys from the sideline, but Mr. Johnston sat tight in his seat, unwilling to risk a second technical and Mr. Noble paced pensively back and forth in front of his bench.

There were two major changes on the court, as well. The Panthers went to a zone, and, with about five about minutes left in the third quarter, got hot from beyond the arc. Montel Green started it, pulling his team within fifteen points, 39-24. Not much later, senior guard Chris Sleepers struck twice more from beyond the arc to make it 41-30. The gym remained calm, the Panther fans seemingly unwilling to hope again and Blazer fans still unaware of the danger. Soon after, Brouwer went back door and Coach Noble excitedly quipped to his bench, “See, that’s what we do!” A minute later Street drained a 3-pointer in front of his teammates to put Central on top by 13 with 1:10 to play in the quarter. The fans’ nonchalance once again appeared justified, even though Panther guard Tra’veon Johnson converted twice from the charity stripe to make it 46-35 with one quarter to play.

After scoring 16 and 19 in the first two periods, Central dropped to 11 in the third. The fourth quarter continued that trend, exposing the Blazers’ inability to crack the zone. Aimless perimeter passing ended in ill-advised shots and turnovers. Washington kept Central scoreless for the first four minutes of the period. Johnson, meanwhile, picked up where he’d left off in the third quarter, converting six more free throws and a lay-up as the Panthers drew within one point, 46-45, with 4:14 to play. In 11 quick minutes, the visitors shaved a 20-point deficit to one and their fans finally came to life, incredulous, but proud.

It wasn’t all good news for Washington, however. With 5:28 left in the game, Chris Sleepers, their sniper in the third quarter, fouled out. Though the scoring burden had shifted to Tra’veon Johnson, Sleepers’s departure meant Green, saddled with three fouls and soon to get his fourth, was the only reliable three-point option left for the Panthers.

After Johnson knocked down his free throws at the 4:14 mark, Central desperately needed some offense. Junior guard Tra’vion Qualls found it, rising for a 3-pointer from the wing near the three-minute mark.

With 2:50 left on the clock, the score still 49-45, Blake Brouwer pulled down a defensive rebound as a ref whistled a foul. Initially, it looked Tra’veon Johnson would be rung up for an over-the-back call, but the official pointed at Brouwer, motioning the red-hot Panther guard to the free throw line for a 1-and-1 opportunity. The Central crowd and team went ballistic, and in the outrage, Terrell Street received a technical foul. As the senior walked off his frustration on the other end of the court, Johnson drilled all four attempts: 12-12 at the line in 7 minutes.

The Blazers got the ball back and this time Stahl fired a no-look pass to Brouwer in the lane, who missed but got fouled. As the senior stepped to the line, I rose to my feet, along with many other fans behind the bench. Blake nailed both free throws. 51-49, 2:23 to play. On the other end, Washington hit right back with a 3-pointer. This time the Washington fans stood in unison, cheering their team’s first lead since early in the first quarter.

Once again, back on offense, Stahl rifled a ball into the paint, this time to Jaron Walters, who just missed his lay-up but also earned a trip to the line. Walters went 1-2, tying the ball game up at 52-apiece. On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, Qualls, quiet since his 3-pointer, stole the ball on the perimeter and raced the other way, drawing a blocking foul. At the line for 1-and-1, the gangly 6-1 guard missed the first. Tra’veon Johnson, seconds later, drove into the lane, forcing contact and a chance for the Panthers to go up by two with 1:01 to play. The first free throw swished through, 13-13, but the second clanged off the iron and Central came down with the rebound.

Despite some success in the paint down the stretch, Qualls’ 3-pointer remained Central’s only field goal of the period. They couldn’t solve the zone this time, either, with the ball popping loose on the baseline with 45 seconds to play. In the scramble for the ball, Qualls and a Washington defender latched onto the ball, forcing a whistle and jump ball. One brief glance at the scorers’ table sent a wave of relief through the Central crowd as the Blazers retained possession. Twenty seconds later, the clock ticking closer and closer to zero, and the home team strung out uselessly on the perimeter, Tra’vion Qualls received a pass near the top of the key, several feet behind the arc. The junior rose in a flash, arcing the ball high above the court. Swish! The bench went berserk, while Troy Noble screamed at his men to get back on defense. Washington brought the ball back quickly up the court, but Qualls deflected a pass out of bounds and the Panthers opted for a timeout, 16 seconds left on the clock.

The hero bounded to the sideline, his teammates mobbing him, before settling into the huddle for last-second defensive assignments. Washington in-bounded the ball, but once again, a pass was knocked into the stands, setting up one final chance with 11 seconds to play. From the top of the key, the pass went into the corner to Montel Green, the team’s deadliest three-point shooter. He released the shot, but it clanged short and for the final time Qualls materialized at just the right moment, squeezing the rebound as time expired. Central players mobbed him wildly at mid-court, before an assistant coach yanked them over to shake hands with their opponent. Once through the line they broke free again, bounding exuberantly off the home court, 55-53 winners on Senior Night.

The crowd remained standing for the fight song, then slowly dispersed into the frosty Indiana night. Nikki and I lingered for a bit, joking that we should hang around the locker room door for autographs. The evening began as any other spent in North Side, but the thrill from this game’s ending still lingers almost 24 hours later. It will be a long three weeks on the road for the Blazers in February during the build-up to sectionals, but when they return home for the postseason, I’ll be ready for the show.

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