A large chunk of what’s been frustrating for the Decatur boys this season was blasted to smithereens Wednesday night with their 41-33 upset of Blessed Trinity at the Decatur High Arena.
Their first-round regional tournament victory earns the Bulldogs at ticket to the dance, the 32-team state tournament that begins next week, a scenario that seemed improbable at best for the last six weeks.
But before going to state Decatur has plenty of regional work left with its 8:30 p.m. Thursday semifinal game against first-seed Woodward, the winner advancing to Friday’s championship and earning a first-round home game in the state playoffs.
Decatur won with unquestionably its best defensive performance all year, limiting Blessed to 28 percent shooting (11 of 40 from the field) and only 3 of 17 (18 percent) three pointers. Decatur coach Charlie Copp mixed man-to-man with a 1-3-1 zone he installed only 2½ weeks ago.
That zone does at least three things: it’s flexible enough to cover the perimeter effectively, it allows for help in the paint – a Decatur weakness for much of this year – and it seems to have improved the team’s man-to-man, possibly because the team now plays it for shorter stretches.
“We knew they were going to play both zone and man-to-man,” BT coach Brian Marks said. “We’ve scouted them and we practiced against both. But I felt, for whatever reason our kids looked rattled. “They beat us with defense,” he added, “they beat us because they got 90 percent of all the loose balls, and the beat us because they were the hungrier team.”
Compared to his last visit here on Jan. 22, BT’s splendid 6-0 point guard Patrick Lamar looked downright emaciated. After scoring 35 points in the first game – most for a Decatur opponent in at least 10 years – he was held to seven Wednesday making only 3 of 16 shots.
“Our strategy was to not let him beat us [to the basket],” said Decatur senior Cordele Jackson. “We were to let him catch, but stay in front of him, don’t let him get around you, and don’t reach.”
Another component of Copp’s strategy was psychological in benching two players, Davante Meadows and Murad Dillard, both juniors who’ve started nearly every game the last two years. The new starting five – Jackson, juniors Noah Fisher and Adarius Lucas and senior Brett Riley and Kendall Ford – bolted from the gates for 12-2 lead in the first 10 minutes, holding BT to only six shots total in the first quarter.
Jackson opened the game with a three setting the tone for his inspired night of 15 points, several coming on daring baseline drives, and three blocks, including one spectacular block of a deep-corner three where he seemed to swat the ball at its apex.
“I thought Jackson carried the team on his back,” Marks said. “I told our kids, he played like a senior who didn’t want his career to end.”
By the time Dillard entered the game midway through the first quarter he’d clearly decided he had no love for pine. He delivered a whiplash pass to Jackson for easy jumper, and moments later hit a 10-footer to make it 7-2. He’d finish with 14 points and one block of his own, of 6-4 Chris Bertrand’s short jumper late in the game.
Decatur weathered two critical moments that it wouldn’t have survived against most good teams this season.
First, with 4.7 seconds left in the first half, Blessed’s Garrett Michael picked off in bounds pass and raced coast to coast for buzzer basket, cutting Decatur’s lead to 18-14 and completely shifting tempo and emotion to favor BT. But Decatur then held BT scoreless for the first 4:40 of the third quarter which, retrospect, might’ve won this game.
Second, Blessed did take a 21-20 lead – it’s only lead of the game – when Jack Dunn hit a long three with 2:05 left in the third. Decatur fans have seen this all year, with an opponent scraping back into the lead and then never looking back.
But after a Decatur timeout the Bulldogs reeled off seven straight points with Dillard hitting a turnaround jumper from the key, then Dillard again with a three pointer, then Fisher with a pinpoint pass to Riley for a layup. On this night it was the Bulldogs, now leading 27-21, who never looked back.
The victory begins to help erase a regular season where Decatur lost all eight games to the four top teams in Region 6-AAA by an average of 15.75 points per game, including losses of 12 and 15 to Blessed Trinity.
It was also the second straight year Decatur ended BT’s season with a tournament win. In the 12 meetings between these two since 2008, Decatur’s only won four times, three of those in the regional tournament.
“They beat us last year with physicality,” Marks said, “and this year they beat us with defense. We have all our kids (11 total) coming back, so we’ll learn from this.”
Girls Decatur 47 Woodward 46
Boys St. Pius X 49 Cedar Grove 47 (overtime)
Girls St. Pius X 54 Blessed Trinity 41
Girls consolation: 4 p.m. Woodward (3 seed) vs. Blessed Trinity (4)