Stop. Exhale. Relax. Savor this one.
The Culver Military Academy Eagles are the 2018 Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 3A State Basketball Champions.
It’s something Culver has never been able to say before. And it is something worthy of enjoying (again and again).
The Eagles did it with a flourish, thanks to two thunderous dunks by Trey Galloway and Deontae Craig near the end of the game. Those dunks brought Culver fans to their feet and crushed the hopes of Evansville Bosse fans.
They did it with defense, holding a Bosse team that averaged 83.3 points per game to just 49 while scoring 64 themselves. Ironically, the Eagles scored 64 against Bosse the first time they played on Dec. 16, but the Bulldogs had 74 in the victory. The 25-point reduction added an exclamation point to how much Culver’s defense improved over the past three months.
The Eagles’ defense was so stifling that Bosse didn’t break into double digits until the 4:43 mark of the second quarter. Before that, Culver held a 30-8 lead. And when the Bulldogs closed to within 34-29 in the third quarter, the Eagles shut them down again for the next seven minutes.
They did with grit, outrebounding the taller Bulldogs, 32-28. Ethan Brittain-Watts and Craig each had seven boards. They also committed just 10 turnovers compared to Bosse’s 18.
Winning state championships is nothing new at Culver. In fact, Varsity A hockey won the school’s 26th state championship earlier this month. We have two teams – CMA Prep Hockey and CMA Prep Lacrosse – ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Still, this one title is a big deal, folks. Especially after coming so tantalizing close in 2011, losing to Cody Zeller and the Washington Hatchets in the championship. This game meant so much to Juwan Brescacin ’11, who has since played in two CFL Grey Cups for the Calgary Stampeders, he came back to watch.
It’s a big deal because of the history. Hoosier Hysteria is not a marketing ploy. This state is home to 14 of the 16 largest high school gyms in the country. It is the only state to play its championship games on an NBA floor – where more than 13,000 people braved eight inches of snow to watch two high school basketball games (the combined morning and evening sessions drew nearly 27,000). It’s the state where they made a movie, Hoosiers, based on the Milan Miracle of 1954.
Add to this, the Eagles had never won a state team title in any IHSAA-sanctioned sport since joining in 1974. Shoot, Culver had not even won a boys basketball sectional until the 2011 team broke that barrier.
On the way to the 2018 title, Culver (ranked No. 4) beat three top 10 teams in the process, including No. 1 New Castle and No. 3 Bosse. Now the players and coaches will have their names added to the other champions at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame located in (you guessed it) New Castle.
This team also set a record for the most wins in a season with 23, which it set a year earlier at 21. But it was that 21-win season that drove this group. Ask the players, those 21 wins weren’t enough. Ask Ignas Masiulionis ’17, who came back to cheer on his old teammates. When Ethan Brittain-Watts and Trey Galloway talked about redemption during this tournament run, they were talking about washing the bad taste out of their mouths after losing in the regional last year.
The Eagles lost to Twin Lakes by one point, 39-38, in the first game of the LaPorte regional. Twin Lakes went on to the state championship game, losing to Indianapolis Crispus Attucks, 73-71. But the Eagles believed they should have been playing in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Defeating Twin Lakes, 74-36, on Dec. 15 wasn’t enough. The players wanted what they believed should have been theirs last season: a chance to play for a state championship. That’s what drove them. They wanted to get better by playing the best. That’s what took them to Evansville the next day to play Bosse.
It also took them to LaLumiere to play a team with a national schedule on a very snowy Thursday night in February, where they lost 56-50. But, coach Mark Galloway said, they found their defense. It became the Eagles’ trademark for the rest of the season and tournament run. They ran off 11 straight wins, holding every team but one under 50 points. Defense wins championships: sectional, regional, semi-state, and state.
The recipient of all that tournament hardware has been the team’s only senior, Henry Zehner. As he stood in the hallway waiting to go into the press conference after the championship game, he held the state trophy. Galloway reminded him that not many seniors take their jerseys off for the last time after winning their final game.
Of all the seniors on the 101 teams that started in Class 3A of the Indiana high school basketball tournament, there is only one – Zehner – with that sweet taste of victory on his lips.
And that sweet taste of victory, friends, is something to savor.