PLANO — Despite entering the Plano Christmas Classic with serious aspirations of taking home its top prize as the No. 2 seed, the Seneca Fighting Irish were relegated to a sixth-place finish on Saturday night as they dropped a 53-36 decision to the Hinckley-Big Rock Royals in the fifth-place game.
The Irish rode smothering defense to an early lead over the Royals. A huge come-from-behind blocked shot on a fast break by junior forward Austin Applebee early in the first quarter got the Seneca contingent of the crowd in Plano involved, and Seneca held Hinckley-Big Rock to five points in the period, leading by four after a pair of Conlan Callahan free throws with no time left on the clock.
“I thought at the start of the game, defensively we were spot on,” Seneca head coach Russell Witte said. “We didn’t have any issues defensively (early). We stuck to the game plan, but you could tell a few of our kids were spinning in circles offensively.”
Even so, in the second quarter, Seneca continued to control the pace, and a layup by senior point guard Jimmy David gave the Irish a 14-7 lead and forced a Royals timeout. David would go on to lead the Irish with nine points on 4-of-4 shooting to go along with three assists.
However, coming out of the timeout, Hinckley-Big Rock went to their 1-2-1-1 press and gave Seneca a litany of problems in the backcourt. The Royals erased the deficit by pressuring the Irish before taking a 20-18 lead when senior guard Jared Madden hit an acrobatic hanging layup at the buzzer.
Madden would finish with 22 points on the night on 9-of-13 shooting, and the performance would help propel him onto the All-Tournament team. Over four games, he’d average 16 points and 2.5 steals per contest while shooting 56 percent from beyond the arc.
After the half, a David runner momentarily tied the game at 20, but then the Royals ripped off a 14-0 run. Again, the Hinckley-Big Rock was able to force the Irish into uncharacteristic turnovers with their press.
“They were just trapping us and we were making bad passes,” David said. “Once we made one bad pass, it transferred to another bad pass, and then we took off some defensive plays and gave them offensive rebounds – stuff that shouldn’t happen and stuff that we don’t do normally.”
A baseline jumper from senior forward Brian Bergeson would stop Hinckley-Big Rock’s run, and Bergeson would finish with six points, four rebounds and a steal. However, Madden was there once again to answer for the Royals with a big three that gave them a 37-22 lead.
“When they picked up the pressure it was just turnover-turnover-turnover,” Witte said. “They were all mental mistakes. We just didn’t have our heads into the game tonight.”
In the fourth quarter, Seneca battled and at one point cut the lead down to 10 when Callahan hit a layup to make it 45-35. Callahan would finish nine points and three assists of his own to match David’s efforts.
Unfortunately for the Irish, Hinckley-Big Rock was able to make a few pivotal free throws when it counted to extend their advantage, and with less than a minute left the Irish emptied their bench as the lead exceeded 15.
Despite a poor showing in the medal round, Witte doesn’t expect any lingering hangover as the Irish head into what he considers the “third quarter” of their season: Interstate Eight Conference play.
“This game is over. This tournament is over. There is four quarters in every basketball game. We said the first part of the regular season was our first quarter, the Christmas tournament was our second quarter. Now, early January and into February is our third quarter, and then the postseason will be our fourth quarter. We’re gonna focus on our third quarter from here,” Witte said.