Columbus East went into Friday night’s matchup at Jennings County missing three starters, and the Olympians played like it to begin the game.
But as the game went on, the Olympians took bigger and bigger command of the game. They overcame a four-point deficit with a minute left in the third quarter to pull out a 61-51 Hoosier Hills Conference win.
“Change is tough on everybody,” East coach Brent Chitty said. “But we had a great week of practice, and I think it just took them a while to catch their breath and get going.”
The Olympians (10-3, 5-1) were missing guards Nate Rich and Kyle Taylor, both of who suffered sprained ankles in practice this week. Second-leading scorer Zach Martindale was sick and played only about three minutes.
The new-look lineup fell behind 8-0 and trailed 13-4 in the opening minute of the second quarter before going on an 8-0 run to get back in it. East pulled even at 21-all 1:06 in the first half, but Bailey Sanders scored just before halftime and hit a basket and a 3-pointer to open the second half, and Dan Leach followed with a 3 to give the Panthers (11-6, 4-1) their biggest lead at 31-21.
The Olympians answered with a 16-2 run to take a 37-33 lead with 3:19 left in the third quarter. Connor Umphress scored eight points, and Connor Jensen added six during the spurt.
But Jennings wasn’t done. Leach and Bailey Sanders hit back-to-back 3s, and Caleb Eder scored to give the Panthers a 41-37 lead.
East then scored the final four points of the period to tie the game and spark a 17-2 run that pushed it to victory.
“I thought we really gutted it out in the second half,” Chitty said. “We were more patient on offense and got a better shot selection, and defensively, we got a lot of stops.”
“We made some shots and kind of relied on shooting jump shots the rest of the game,” Jennings coach Joe Hartwell said. “We need to really pound it inside, and I think their length really bothered us. We just couldn’t get the good looks that we got early on in the game, and they did a good job of getting to the rim and getting us in foul trouble.”
Jesse Shea scored the final eight points during the Olympians’ final run and scored 10 of his career-high 16 points in the fourth quarter.
“We just had to really come together and work together,” Shea said. “We came out kind of slow, and then we got in the locker room and got really up on ourselves. We talked, and it all came together and we got this victory.”
Umphress also finished with a career-high 16 points.
“Connor Umphress is a guy that we feel can start any night,” Chitty said. “We just have these seniors that have been together, so he gets minutes off the bench.
“Jesse has been that guy that we’ve tried to bring along, and him and I had a talk,” he said. “It was a positive talk, and I just think he’s changed the way he’s been playing the game.”
Thanks to the injuries and illness, Umphress made his first career start.
“We have to battle with adversity every day,” Umphress said. “We’ve had injuries all year. Coming in and playing at Jennings County — it’s always a tough place to play, and we pulled one out.”
“(Martindale, Rich and Taylor are) a big part of our team,” Shea said. “Nathan Rich is a heck of a 3-point shooter, and Kyle is one great point guard, so we really had to step it up tonight.”
Bryce Lienhoop added 12 points and 13 rebounds for East, which outrebounded the Panthers 30-27.
Sanders scored 19 points, and Leach added 13 for Jennings. Eder grabbed 13 rebounds.
The decision leaves both teams with one loss in the HCC. If the Panthers can beat New Albany tonight and upset Jeffersonville on Thursday, and the Olympians knock off Madison on Feb. 15, East, Jennings and Jeffersonville would finish in a three-way tie for the conference crown.
“We’re not even worried about that,” Umphress said. “We’re worried about Franklin (tonight). Certainly (conference) is something that’s going to be in the back of our mind, but we have to focus on (tonight).”