Warsaw senior Jaxson Gould makes his defender miss and goes up for a floater in the first quarter of Warsaw’s game against Penn Tuesday night. Photos by Gary Nieter
Warsaw senior Jaxson Gould makes his defender miss and goes up for a floater in the first quarter of Warsaw’s game against Penn Tuesday night. Photos by Gary Nieter
Though the Warsaw Tigers and Penn Kingsmen have met on numerous occasions in recent years, Tuesday night’s edition of the rivalry added a little extra juice to the matchup by being the first game played by Warsaw at Lakeview Middle School’s Old Tiger Den in nearly 33 years. When the game’s final buzzer sounded, it was former Warsaw coach Al Rhodes’ Kingsmen coming away with a 50-40 victory.

The game was held at the Old Tiger Den as a way to appreciate Rhodes, who coached at Warsaw from 1980 to 2002, winning over 400 games and of course, the 1984 state championship. Before the varsity game started, a group photo was taken with Rhodes, current Tiger head coach Matt Moore, as well as more than a dozen alumni of the program that showed up to watch the game.

“I was trying to soak it up during the JV game so that I wasn’t emotional during our game,” Rhodes said. “I was looking across the way and seeing fans that I saw in the 70s and 80s. I love the Warsaw fans; it was an amazing experience.”

“This is how I remembered this place to be,” Moore said. “It was special. Coming out to “Eye of the Tiger,” seeing all of the alumni here to support us. I hope everyone here appreciated what the Tigers did tonight and we look forward to hopefully seeing Penn in March.”

With no more than a handful of open seats remaining in the Old Tiger Den by the time the game tipped off, the opening minutes of the game matched the rabid intensity of the crowd. Penn’s Markus Burton, a Notre Dame commit as well one of the favorites to win this year’s Mr. Basketball and become the third player under Rhodes to earn that title (Jeff Grose in 1985, Kevin Ault in 1996), got the Kingsmen rolling from the opening tip, scoring the game’s first five points. Neither team held on to the ball for more than a few seconds each time, with all ten players on the court furiously cutting to the hoop and to the three-point line for open looks.

Trailing by eight after the first quarter, Warsaw began to slow the game down as the contest entered the second. Even with Penn no longer being able to burn the Tigers in transition as frequently, the Warsaw defense was able to provide little resistance to Burton, who lit the scoreboard up all night long, finishing with 29 points. Staying hot after a good opening period, Penn would extend its lead to double digits.

“Markus is a tremendous player, I’ve never had one that fills up the stat book like he does,” Rhodes said. “We had a couple of Mr. Basketball’s in the building tonight that were some of the best players I’ve ever seen, but even they didn’t fill up the stats like Markus does.”

To make matters worse, senior Jaxson Gould would land awkwardly after coming up with a massive block on Burton midway through the quarter. After staying down for a couple of minutes, Gould would leave the game.

Looking for any way to weather the storm, Warsaw began playing much more physically in the final minutes of the first half. It worked to the home team’s advantage, with the Kingsmen totaling seven fouls and putting the Tigers in the bonus with Warsaw having committed just two. With some tough rebounding inside by the big man Luke Yeager, the Tigers were able to shrink the lead down to just six at halftime.

The second half began with a roar from the crowd as it was announced Gould would return to the game. After giving up a run to the home team to end the first half, the Kingsmen began the second with a run of their own. Penn would get its lead back to double figures within two minutes of the third period beginning.

As the Tigers did to close out the second quarter, the team would do the same to close out the third. With things looking to get out of hand, some big baskets made by Brandt Martin as well as Carson Gould began to shrink the lead once again. Going into the fourth and final quarter, Warsaw was in striking distance.

After going back and forth for the previous two periods, it was all Penn in the fourth. The Kingsmen surgically picked apart the Warsaw defense with Burton at the head of the pack. After a slower third quarter by his standards, Burton went back to work in the final quarter, putting his team over the top. Martin continued his good shooting as well, but was unable to put a dent into the lead. Martin lead Warsaw in scoring with 12 points. Trai Davis and Luke Bricker each added seven.

With the game coming to a close, Gould was subbed out. The Tigers leader was emotional upon exiting the game, sharing an extended hug with Moore before going down the line and hugging each of his teammates sitting on the bench.

“He’s hurting a lot more than most people probably realize but he’s too tough to make excuses. He was still out there making plays regardless of any of that and I hope the rest of the guys on that bench take note of that and play with that same heart going forward,” Moore said.

Warsaw returns to Northern Lakes Conference play Friday night at Goshen.

“I think we took a step forward regardless of outcome,” Moore said. “We can still win the conference and we can still win the sectional. This was a measuring stick game for us so we are going to keep doing what we’re doing and fighting the good fight.”