Another wound cuts too deep for Cats

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Rhiley Eckert split the defense of Evansville Central’s Rasheide Bell, left, and Evan Milligan on Friday at the Jasper High School gym. Eckert provided a career-best 11 points, but the Bears erased an early 11-point Wildcat advantage, pushed their lead as high as 17 points and downed Jasper 67-59. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — Put in boxing terms, it’s not so much the cut-inducing punch that decides a bout.

As Jasper basketball coach John Goebel explained, the verdict is often dictated by the clean-up job.

Stop the bleeding and you’ve got a chance. Leave the gash open and you’ve got a problem.

So while Goebel applauded his squad’s balanced start and heady finishing kick against Evansville Central on Friday night in the Wildcats’ first contest in nearly two weeks, those middle rounds were the telling ones. As the Bears landed one bop, bash and bump after another, they turned an early Jasper showcase into a 67-59 toppling of the Cats that exposed Jasper’s deepest wound.

“One of our weaknesses that we’ve already talked about this year as a basketball team is when things aren’t going our way, instead of getting tougher, we buckle a little bit under the pressure,” Goebel said. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding a little bit.”

While the Cats looked impressive early (6-of-10 shooting in the first quarter) and late (11-for-15 in the fourth), the Bears staged the salvo when Jasper appeared most comfortable, up 22-11 with 6:30 left in the opening half.

In the next 111⁄2 minutes, spanning parts of the second and third quarters, the Bears barreled to a 36-8 run, in which time the Wildcats committed eight of their 12 turnovers. Central guards Rasheide Bell and Kourtlandt Martin catalyzed the surge, combining for 22 of the points during the run that catapulted the Bears ahead 47-30 with 2:50 to play in the third quarter. Martin finished with a game-high 24 points and Bell ended with 21.

The diagnosis wasn’t hard to discover.

“We just got lazy,” Jasper reserve Rhiley Eckert said. “We just got stupid with the ball. We just kept giving it to them and they kept getting fastbreak points, one after another.”

Eckert, who registered a career- and team-high 11 points, converted baskets that served as bookends to Central’s mid-game charge. The junior tallied back-to-back baskets early in the second quarter, first finishing a second-chance bucket beneath the basket and then coolly sinking a 16-footer on a feed from Nolan Ahrens (10 points) the next time down the floor. Once Central’s lead had ballooned to 17 in the third period, Courtland Betz (seven points) found Eckert inside again for a close-range deuce.

When the Cats (2-3) attacked the paint, good things typically materialized. Fighting back from a 51-34 deficit entering the final quarter, Jasper guards found Austin Alles (seven points, nine rebounds) posting up for baskets on two of the Wildcats’ first three possessions. Jasper appeared to develop rhythm from there, scoring on 12 of its 16 possessions in the fourth quarter.

“I was proud of our kids for fighting back at the end and making a game out of it, and we’re a ton better than we were a couple weeks ago,” Goebel said. “But as Central showed us tonight, when you play a good basketball team, we have just a small margin for error, and they took advantage.”

The Bears (4-2) swiped 20 points off the Cats’ dozen turnovers, including a steal and fastbreak flush by Bell with six minutes left in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Jasper gathered 13 points off the Bears’ 12 turnovers. All 13 came in either the first or fourth quarter. And while Central’s capitalization on cough-ups certainly crippled the Cats, the Bears’ aggressiveness gutted the home team even more.

Central sank 26-of-30 attempts from the free-throw line. Conversely, Jasper knocked down six of its mere eight foul shots, and didn’t enter the bonus in either half. The contrast is stark, but certainly not an anomaly.

As Goebel underlined, the free throw discrepancy has been building all season between his squad and its opponents. Counting Friday’s 22-shot difference, Jasper’s opponents have attempted 128 foul shots to the Cats’ 62.

If the Wildcats want to stop an adversary’s charge, it has to come with brawn, Goebel insisted. And it has to come on the inside.

“It’s been our Achilles’ heel all year,” Goebel said. “It’s not something that just popped up. It’s been an ugly problem since day one, and we’ve got to do a much better job of feeding the post. And we’ve got to do a much better job of our guards, when they dribble-penetrate, to not shy away from contact or (drawing) contact. ... And if we don’t reverse that (free throw) trend, it’s going to be a tough go for us.”

Like Goebel, Eckert found solace in how Jasper revamped the energy level in the game’s latter stages as well. When Alles banked in the last of his three fourth-quarter field goals on the low block, the Cats had cut Central’s lead to 57-51 with 2:24 left. Had the Bears not buried 9-of-10 foul shots from there, the ending may have been written differently. And in that, there’s promise heading into tonight’s battle at Class 2A No. 7 Paoli (6-0).

“We just kept playing aggressive,” Eckert said. “We found a way to finish and it kept working.

“Hopefully we take that momentum we had in the fourth quarter and start with it at Paoli tomorrow night.”

Contact Joe Jasinski

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