An entire season often is decided by a handful of moments.
However, as the Marian High School boys basketball team can attest, those moments don’t have to define the season.
Marian’s first-ever trip to the IHSAA Boys Basketball State Finals ended in defeat, a 53-43 loss to Beech Grove in the Class 3A Championship Game on Saturday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Knights (24-4) led throughout the first half, and after a third-quarter run gave the Hornets (22-6) the lead, Marian fought back to a 36-36 tie with 5:47 to go. But in a game in which neither team shot the ball particularly well, Beech Grove simply made a few more plays down the stretch to earn the victory over Marian head coach Robb Berger’s squad.
“First thing I want to say is just how proud I am of my team,” said Berger after the game. “They’ve given everything they have in every game since early December. Every practice, every game, they had a goal in mind, and it hurts right now. You know, we came up basically five minutes short – I think it was tied with about five minutes to go, and we came up a little bit short.”
From the opening tip, Marian had the early edge. The Knights knocked down five of their seven field goal attempts in the first quarter to build a 13-7 lead, and they led by as many as eight in the second quarter. Beech Grove cut it to two at the half, as Marian held a 22-20 advantage.
The third quarter, however, belonged to the Hornets. Beech Grove used a 12-0 spurt to grab control, smothering the Knights offensive attack with pressure at the rim – primarily from 6-foot-6 big man Anthony Ball. Not only did the junior lead the Hornets with 17 points, he also keyed a 37-23 advantage on the boards by pulling down a massive 20 rebounds of his own.
“They had a really strong on-the-ball defense,” said Marian senior Richard Brooks. “He [Ball] was a load inside and was really hard to finish around.”
“They’re really strong on the inside,” agreed Berger. “They really pounded the glass, and they’re very active defensively. We’ve got to tip our hats to them because I thought they definitely deserved the win tonight.”
But Marian wasn’t finished. A battle-tested bunch all season, the Knights had already made game-saving defensive stops in both their sectional championship win over top-ranked John Glenn and their regional title-clinching victory over Culver Academies. A buzzer-beating three-pointer from Brooks to end the third quarter brought the Knights within two, and they would tie the game in the opening minutes of the fourth.
However, that was as close as the Knights would get, as Beech Grove connected on its final six shots to pull away. The Hornets iced the game at the free throw line, where they held a 12-3 advantage, helping them overcome a subpar shooting night (36%). In the process, Beech Grove held Marian to just 43 points, a Class 3A State Championship record for fewest points allowed.
Marian was led by Brooks, who finished with 13 points to end his high school career. Junior Deaglan Sullivan added 10 points, three assists and three steals, while senior Kaleo Kakalia pulled down a team-high 10 boards. Junior Jackson Price chipped in nine points on 3-of-4 shooting from long range.
Despite coming up short, Kakalia said the experience of playing in a state championship game was unforgettable.
“It was great; we got treated well,” said Kakalia. “All of us, I think, got closer together – even closer than we were before, and I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”
“Those are just my brothers, and it was just so good to do this with them,” Brooks added. “I wouldn’t rather do this with anyone else. Those are the guys I’ve been with for over a year now. I just love them.”
Berger was quick to put a positive spin on the outcome, refusing to let those final few minutes or the difficult emotions of the moment define his team.
“It hurts, but it doesn’t take away the season and the careers that my two seniors here have had at Marian High School, which took our program to a new level – a level that will be tough for the guys to sustain, but we’re going to try.”
That new level produced a record-setting season for the Knights, who won a program-best 24 games this year and captured the team’s first-ever semi-state title. For a team that only graduates two seniors and returns three starters – including its leading scorer in Sullivan – there’s reason to believe that Marian basketball isn’t going anywhere.
“I think it will make them hungry,” Berger said of his underclassmen. “Once you experience coming down here and playing, I think it would be addictive. It would be something you’d want to try again. We know it’s not easy, it’s obviously tough to get down here. We’ll take a little time off and get back to work for the next season.”
Following the game, the IHSAA announced the recipient of the Arthur L. Trester Mental Attitude Award, which is presented annually to a senior who has demonstrated excellence in mental attitude, scholarship, leadership and athletic ability during his four years of high school. Brooks was brought to tears as he heard his name called and was joined by his parents at midcourt to accept the award.
“Just all the emotions came out from all the work we’ve put in all season – they had to come out at some point,” said Brooks. “I just saw my parents, and that’s when I lost it, because they do everything for me. They support me through everything, and those are good shoulders to cry on.”
These are the defining moments for Brooks and company, not the turnovers or missed shots. This Knights squad will forever remember what they accomplished because of the journey they took as a team – and how they walked together with the Lord.
“I think God has a big part in what we’re doing,” Brooks said. “We pray a rosary before every game, we go to Mass sometimes before games; we just pray a lot. I guess He didn’t have the outcome that we wanted in mind, but it was probably for a reason. I think God just helped us get here all the way.”
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