Columbus East spent the final 28 minutes of Friday night’s Shelbyville Sectional semifinal scratching and clawing its way back into its basketball game with Bloomington South.
Unfortunately for the Olympians, they had dug themselves a 16-0 hole in the first five minutes, and that proved to be too much to overcome in a 55-45 loss.
“We got off to a bad start, but the best thing about this team ... we’re not the most talented, but we never, ever quit,” said junior Connor Umphress, who led East with 23 points. “We got back into it, and that’s what we do best. We played 32 minutes. We played hard, and we played smarter as the game went on. We had a chance to win that game and very well could have. Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
The Panthers (15-7) advance to tonight’s championship game to play Bloomington North, which upset Columbus North in Friday’s first semifinal.
Johnny Jager hit two 3-pointers and two free throws to give Bloomington South an 8-0 lead. Four more Panther baskets made it 16-0 before Umphress hit a long 3-pointer to get the Olympians (17-5) on the board with 2:40 left in the first quarter.
“I think we were jacked up ready to go, and they came out and hit some shots and we missed some easy ones early,” East coach Brent Chitty said.
Umphress hit two more 3-pointers to get the Olympians back within 18-11 in the opening minute of the second quarter. But then he picked up his third foul with 5:00 left and went to the bench for the remainder of the half, and Bloomington South pushed the lead back to 27-14 at halftime.
“We hit the first couple shots and got a little momentum,” Bloomington South coach J.R. Holmes said. “Our defense was good the first half.”
East came back to within 34-25 on a 3-point play by Bryce Lienhoop with 1:34 left in the third quarter, but the Panthers went to the spread and pushed it back to 42-27 with 7:30 left in the game.
“When you get to that point, if you don’t go ahead and put them away, it’s a dogfight,” Holmes said. “We were trying to spread the floor because they had four fouls on Umphress, and Lienhoop we didn’t think could guard our guys on the drive. We got too anxious a few times and made it a little interesting there at the end.”
Still trailing 48-37 with just over two minutes remaining, the Olympians used four free throws from Lienhoop and a basket from Umphress to cut it to 49-43 with 1:27 left. But that was as close as they would come.
“I think we settled down a little bit and hit some shots,” Chitty said. “We dug ourselves a big hole, but like all year, our kids never quit. They battled. I’m so proud of our guys.”
East shot only 32.5 percent (13-of-40) from the field.
“We didn’t shoot it well tonight, and they did,” Chitty said. “You have to shoot it well to win, and we didn’t shoot as well as we normally do. We missed a lot of layups. We have to finish.”
Umphress had 23 points to lead all scorers. Lienhoop added 13 points and nine rebounds.
“Connor and Bryce are our guys,” Chitty said. “I thought Connor worked his guts out.”
“They’re a hard team to guard because Umphress is a great shooter, (Parker) Chitty is a very good point guard and Lienhoop is one of the best high school players we’ve played in his four-year career,” Holmes said. “He’s killed us just about every year we’ve played them, and I thought we did a good job on him tonight.”
The Olympians’ season was its best since going 17-5 in 2001-02 and 2002-03.
“This loss does not define our season at all,” Umphress said. “This is one of the best teams East has ever had because of how hard we worked.”
Brent Chitty agreed.
“We had great senior leadership,” Chitty said. “There were a lot of valuable lessons they learned this year. It’s a great group to coach.
“I think the kids have poured their heart into it,” he said. “They’ve embraced ‘team.’ They played unselfish. I couldn’t be prouder of this group of young men. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to coach them.”