Cougar senior Seth Martin absorbs the contact as he makes his way to the basket in the first quarter. Martin finished his night with 30 points. Photos by Gary Nieter
Cougar senior Seth Martin absorbs the contact as he makes his way to the basket in the first quarter. Martin finished his night with 30 points. Photos by Gary Nieter
WINONA?LAKE - A win against South Bend Career Academy on Thursday night would give Lakeland Christian at least a co-championship of the Hoosier Plains Conference. At times it wasn’t pretty, at others it was downright stressful, but after 32 hard-fought minutes, the Cougars were cutting down nets and celebrating a 64-62 victory.

“I knew this was going to be a battle coming in,” Lakeland Christian head coach Taylor Long said after the game. “They’re a team that likes to play in the 80s and 90s and we like to play in the 30s and 40s. We knew they were going to come in and put some pressure on us and I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.”

It was an impressive start for the road team, as Career Academy got out to an early lead by using some timely pressure. The Blazers did a good job of disguising it well, as there were more than a few possessions an unexpected double team led to a Cougar turnover. Career Academy wasted no time converting those opportunities into points, quickly racing down the court for easy layups on the other end.

The Blazers also used their size advantage early on to give LCA some trouble on the offensive glass. In the first quarter, more than half of the Blazer’s possessions resulted in more than one shot attempt. But more times than not, a tough Cougar defense would be waiting to alter or send away put back attempts at the rim.

After a minute or two of sluggish pace, Lakeland Christian began imposing a will of their own. LCA’s strategy was clear: make the extra pass and find the open man. The tactic paid dividends immediately, especially in the paint. The Cougars found tons of chances under the basket and either converted their shots or were fouled. The visitors committed seven fouls in the first six minutes, putting the Cougars in the bonus the rest of the way. Free throws would be crucial for LCA all night long.

“It was a huge advantage for us,” Long remarked. “We knew we had to be strong, be poised and we were. At the end we got a little tired, started missing them short, but we got the ones we needed.”

Despite the hot start from South Bend, LCA held a two-point lead after a quarter. In the second period, LCA senior Seth Martin, a top-ten scorer in the state, began his usual takeover. The 6’2” guard made it look easy, going through two or three defenders to get to the cup. If the shot wasn’t there, he showed off his floor vision and found an open man. More times than not his unselfishness would lead to a bucket.

However, the Blazers would not go away. The visitors from South Bend would sink a tough three whenever it seemed as if the Cougars were inching towards a big run. One of the most pivotal plays of the first half came as time was expiring. A last-second heave from Career’s point guard resulted in a foul being called on the shot. The player would miss all three free throws, causing a huge momentum swing going into the second half. Instead of going into the locker room up four, LCA held a seven-point advantage.

South Bend came out with a fire in the second half, ripping off an 8-0 run in the first 90 seconds of the third to retake the lead, their first since the first quarter. It was the first of many lead changes over the next eight minutes, as both sides found an offensive groove and had little problem exploiting the opposing defense.

But the foul trouble would show up once again for the visitors, as they put the Cougars in the bonus with 1:30 to go in the third quarter. LCA would capitalize once again and use the charity stripe to rebuild a six-point lead the team would hold going into the fourth. The constant attacking of the basket did cause some trouble for the home side however, as Martin was fouled particularly hard on one drive. He would stay down for a minute and briefly check out of the game. He would return not long after, but played the rest of the contest noticeably hobbled.

The fourth quarter was undoubtedly one of the longest played in the state this year. The ball was in play for about 20 seconds at a time before either a foul or a deflection put it out of bounds. With both teams in the bonus with nearly seven minutes to go, each foul held weight, leading to some tensions from both sides.

The large amounts of downtime in between actual basketball seemed to take its toll on the Cougars at first, as the team started splitting its free throws or missing a pair after being automatic for the first 24 minutes. The rust did not last long though, as LCA was able to find some rhythm and extend its lead to 10 with just over three minutes to play.

A large factor in growing the lead was Martin, who battled valiantly despite the nagging injury. On more than one occasion he would fall to his knees after a play, causing a silence to fall over the crowd. Each time, he would get back up. It was perhaps his best play of the game that got the lead to ten. Running at full speed, the senior would pick up an emphatic chase down block off of the backboard that sent the crowd in a frenzy. He got up quickly, ran the length of the floor and scored a layup at the other end. Martin finished his night with 30 points, eight rebounds, four steals and two blocks.

“I know it’s cliché to bring up his work ethic but that’s exactly what he brings to this team,” Long said, praising his senior leader. “Everything he does he does at 100% and that rubs off on the team and it’s led to a phenomenal senior year for him. He wants to get better every day and he won’t settle for less.”

However, Career was not finished. The visitors got back into the game quickly with the three ball as well as some suffocating defense. After each made basket, the Blazers would engineer a lockdown full-court press. It took a few times seeing it for the home side to figure out a way to break it, and in the meantime, the visitors would take advantage by forcing backcourt turnovers and turning them into easy buckets.

Career’s final chance came on the last possession of the game. Trailing by two with seven seconds left, the Blazers missed the first shot of their possession but grabbed an offensive board. A foul was called on the ensuing shot with 0.4 seconds left on the clock. Both free throws were missed, LCA’s Micah Martin grabbed the rebound and the party was started.

Lakeland Christian (16-3, 4-1 Hoosier Plains) still has a chance to win the conference championship outright. A Trinity win over Bethany Christian Friday, February 17, would clinch the outright title for the Cougars. In the meantime, LCA will play its first of four nonconference games to close out the regular season Tuesday against Manchester.

 “It’s our first time at the top since the conference got reshuffled. We’ll see what happens with Bethany next week,” Long said as his team took turns getting a piece of the net. “But to win the Cougar classic and now to see this going on, it’s been a special year for these guys.”