SENECA — On their home floor, the second-seeded Seneca Fighting Irish boys basketball team relied on an Irish tradition to end the Reed-Custer Comets’ season — defense.
While the Seneca offense struggled to find any rhythm in the first half, the defense kept the game close until the offense found its mark, burying the visitors by a 59-34 margin.
“When you’re making shots, the game looks pretty easy,” Seneca head coach Russell Witte said following the win.
The young Irish team was put on its heels early, with Reed-Custer (11-18) jumping out to an early 5-0 lead before Seneca (18-11) guard Jimmy David scored on a layup coming off a Peyton Schragg assist with 5:51 to go in the first. The home team tacked on two more baskets in the next 30 seconds, prompting a Reed-Custer timeout. The teams battled through the rest of the half, with the Comets taking a 12-10 advantage into the second quarter.
Between quarters, Witte emphasized the lack of defensive rebounding, and told his players that there should be “one and done,” possessions for the Comets, rather than the multiple-attempt possessions the Comets benefited from early on.
The Irish trailed by seven late in the second quarter, before going 4-for-4 from the line, closing the gap to 19-17 with under a minute left in the half. A steal by the Irish gave Conlan Callahan the chance to tie the game heading into the locker room, but he was unaware of the amount of time left on the clock, missing a 20-foot runner as time expired in the frame.
“We had a few kids with postseason experience, and most of them weren’t good ones,” said Witte of his team’s start. “Once a couple shots fell, we could breathe.”
A sterling team defensive effort was in full display to start the third, as the Irish held Reed-Custer to only seven points in the frame, which paled in comparison to Seneca’s 24. The Irish were able to overcome a frigid 3 of 11 (27 percent) from downtown, due largely in part to strong ball movement, and a hot hand from the free throw line.
“Having the home floor was a huge advantage tonight,” Seneca guard Jimmy David said after the game. “This floor is ours.”
David and Callahan combined to shoot 14-for-14 from the line, and as a team Seneca knocked down 79 percent of its charity stripe attempts, including two by the lone Irish senior Jacob Klepk with 13.6 seconds left in the third following a flagrant foul on Seneca forward Brian Bergeson. With three seconds left, David knocked down a 3-point attempt, and was fouled. The four-point play gave the Irish a 41-26 advantage with eight minutes to play.
“Last week, when we beat Reed-Custer by one, it was a dogfight,” Witte said. “We completely changed our defensive plan tonight, and, defensively, it was our best executed game plan.”
The fourth quarter was much of the same, and as the Irish lead grew, the more unruly and raucous the crowd became. With 6:59 left in the game, Reed-Custer guard Eric Robinson was called for a technical foul, following a defensive foul call against the Comets. Given that the bonus was in effect, a one-and-one was also given to Irish guard Callahan, who knocked down all four free throws as part of his 11 points on 2 of 8 from the floor.
The reserves locked the game down for Seneca, and in the final seconds of the 59-34 win, the Irish faithful and Comets’ fans bantered back and forth across the gym, amid chants of “warm the bus up,” by Seneca supporters.
David led all scorers with 19 points on 6 of 11 shooting, including 8 of 8 from the line. The Irish will take on the Herscher Tigers, the No. 1 seed in the regional, Friday at 7:30 pm. Herscher beat Seneca in the Interstate Eight Conference regular season.
The Tigers defeated Dwight 64-39 in Wednesday's other semifinal.
"In this one, we are definitely the underdogs," Witte said. "We were beat at Herscher by 11, and we had it down to five at one point, but couldn't quite get there."