Defeating Romeo Langford and New Albany is a difficult enough task for most boys basketball teams in the state of Indiana to handle on a good day.
When you’re put in a hole right away, as Center Grove was in Saturday night’s Class 4A regional final at Seymour, the job becomes an almost impossible one.
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Though they battled until the final horn, the Trojans never fully recovered from a difficult start and saw their season come to an end in a 69-56 defeat.
Early foul trouble for Center Grove star Trayce Jackson-Davis — he picked up two in the first 2:42 of the game — changed the tone of the game and proved too much for the Trojans to overcome.
“I’m going to be pretty candid here and say that touch fouls on one end and elbows in the back on the other end are two different stories,” Center Grove coach Zach Hahn said. “That’s how I feel, and that’s what I’m sticking with.”
Granted, Langford also had quite a bit to do with the outcome. The All-American and presumptive Indiana Mr. Basketball finished with a game-high 39 points, proving to be impervious to the Trojans’ best efforts to slow him down.
Langford has 2,967 career points, fourth in Indiana history, heading into this weekend’s semistate showdown with unbeaten Warren Central.
“Romeo’s a great player,” Hahn said. “We tried to take away his right hand and we didn’t do a good enough job, and he made plays like he needed to.”
Langford drew Jackson-Davis’ second foul on his first basket of the night, starting a personal 10-0 run that helped give the Bulldogs (25-1) an early 16-3 lead.
Jackson-Davis returned to the court midway through that run, sitting out for less than two minutes — but while he put forth a strong effort, leading Center Grove with 24 points, the tone of his performance was clearly affected by the two quick whistles.
“It totally changed it for me,” Jackson-Davis said, “because instead of trying to contest (Langford) going at the basket I have to try to jump straight up.”
“It changed his aggressiveness on both the offensive and defensive end,” Hahn added. “They tried to take three charges on him in the first quarter, and they called one, of course. And anytime that happens, it’s going to change his aggressiveness, it makes it tough.”
The Trojans (20-7) fought back behind a big second quarter from Jackson-Davis, twice cutting the deficit to eight. But a 3-pointer by Langford with just over a minute left in the half slowed the Trojans’ momentum and left New Albany ahead by double digits at the midway point, 39-28.
Langford had 22 first-half points, while Jackson-Davis countered with 16.
Any hopes that Center Grove had of making a comeback were quietly snuffed out early in the third when Sean East started the Bulldogs’ second half with a 3-pointer. Every subsequent attempt the Trojans made to get a run going seemed to be interrupted by a Langford bucket.
That is, of course, until the fourth quarter, when the Trojans got consecutive 3s from Nate McLain and Ben Nicoson during a 10-0 run that narrowed the difference back down to eight, 60-52, with 3:04 left. Six points in a row from East, though, the last on foul shots with 1:01 to go, made it 69-55 and sent the Trojan faithful staggering toward the exits.
“We battled back and we played hard in the second half,” Hahn said, “but if you’re not going to make your open shots and down on the other end they’re going to shoot free throws all night, it’s hard to overcome that against a really good team like New Albany.”
The morning semifinal went much better for the Trojans, who shook off a slow start to pull away from Evansville North, 69-44.
The Trojans trailed early, 9-4, before taking control with a dominating effort in the paint. Joey Klaasen scored all 10 of his points in the second quarter, and Jackson-Davis repeatedly demoralized the Huskies at both ends with emphatic dunks and blocked shots. He finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks to put on a show for Indiana coach Archie Miller, who was camped out two rows behind the scorer’s table.
A McLain 3 with 6:46 left in the third quarter punctuated a 13-0 midgame run that left Center Grove comfortably ahead, 37-21. The Trojans stretched their lead to 52-28 by the end of the period and coasted from there.
McLain finished with 16 points against the Huskies and then had 15 more against New Albany in his final game. He is one of four graduating Center Grove seniors, along with Klaasen, Noah Gillard and Cameron Fresher.
For Klaasen, who is unsure whether he’ll continue playing basketball in college, it was tough reaching the end of the road.
“I’ve known all of these kids since I was really little, especially the seniors and juniors,” he said. “It’s something that you just have to experience to know what it’s like, and it’s something that I’ll miss a lot.”
Jackson-Davis, though, has one more season, and he’ll enter his senior year on the short list of Mr. Basketball front runners. Classmates and fellow starters Nicoson and Spencer Piercefield are among those returning for the Trojans.
“I wish we could have done it for our seniors this year,” Jackson-Davis said of the loss, “but it’s great experience for next year, because I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back here.”