Defense, leadership sends Cats home as champs

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald Jasper’s Caleb Burger rushes on the court to hug Reece Milligan after the final buzzer sounds at Saturday's Class 4A boys basketball sectional championship game in Evansville. Jasper defeated Evansville Reitz 45-39 for the Wildcats first sectional championship title since 2014. Reitz came into Saturday night's game averaging over 64 points a game but Jasper's stingy defense helped keep the Panthers off balance for most of the night. For more photos from the championship, click here.

By JONATHAN SAXON

jsaxon@dcherald.com

EVANSVILLE — The Jasper Wildcats had themselves a rematch on Saturday.

After beating Evansville Harrison and Evansville North in their first two sectional games, the Wildcats drew a former foe in the Evansville Reitz Panthers, whom they faced and defeated back on December 8.

But even though the sectional final was a long way from December, the Wildcats used that prior experience to help them navigate their second meeting as they defeated the Panthers 45-39 to win the sectional championship. The Wildcats’ last sectional win came in 2014 and Saturday marked the team’s 32nd sectional title in school history.

Jasper head coach John Goebel had nothing but praise for his players as they rushed the court and cut the nets after the sectional championship victory. He also believes that the prior experience against the Panthers was critical in giving his team the confidence to go out and perform to their best with the raised stakes.

“I’m proud of the kids, I’m glad that they got to experience this,” he said. “One of the most important things was our defensive effort tonight. That was a high-powered Reitz offense, it was a gutsy defensive effort that put us in the position to be successful tonight. If we hadn’t played them successfully early in the year, we might have felt like the underdog coming out here tonight. Most people considered us the underdog, but I don’t think our players did. They realized they could be successful, and that helped them to play with the determination to win the game.”

Following the sectional victory, the players were ecstatic about bringing a sectional trophy back home to Jasper for the first time since 2014. 

“This (is) pretty insane for all of us,” said junior guard Jackson Kabrick. “We played together. Our coaches came out with a great scouting report and got us prepared for all of these games. We knew we were going to have to play hard on the defensive end of the floor and that would translate into our offense. That’s what we did tonight.”

“I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I (started) playing basketball in high school,” added senior forward Jared Englert. “This is the ultimate goal and we finally did it my senior year. It’s an awesome surreal feeling. We came out with a defensive mindset, we held them to 39 and I know they score a lot more than that every other game. It was our defensive effort that made us win.”

Jasper senior Phillip Noblitt cuts a piece of the net in celebration of winning the sectional championship during Saturday's Class 4A boys basketball game in Evansville. For more photos from the championship, click here.

The Wildcats felt that a lot of the talk around the sectional tournament counted them out as fans had their predictions about who would win. The team latched on to those notions and used them as fuel to stoke the belief in themselves as they took the long road to Saturday’s win.

“We are the smallest school in this sectional, and I think when we were transferred to this sectional there was a common belief that we weren’t going to be very successful,” said Goebel, who called this sectional title, the sixth in his coaching career, special because the Wildcats were able to overcome the doubters. “This is a special one because I don’t think anybody gave us a chance – that makes it more special, the fact that we were such a heavy underdog. I’m happy for our kids to be able to go out and prove that they belonged on this floor.”

“Coming in, everybody but us thought we weren’t going to have a chance,” added senior guard Reece Milligan. “But we fought hard game to game, faced our adversity and we came out on top.”

Goebel said the team did a lot of maturing very quickly as they banded together to make the most of the second season. He had been on his team to become more player-led as the season went on, and even worried about things getting too negative during some rough stretches of the season. But the boys never quit and Goebel described the team’s focus and efforts over the last three weeks as a night-and-day transformation.

“We grew up a lot in a hurry,” he said. “I really put a lot of pressure on the seniors this year, and at times I was worried that I was losing them, especially when you’re on a losing streak like we were a couple of times in the second half of the season. But over the last three weeks with tough wins on the road at Mater Dei and Mount Carmel, our seniors really started to get it, started being more positive and vocal in practice. There were fewer miscues in the game because they were communicating so much better on the floor — they grew up very quickly.”

“Myself and my fellow seniors, we decide we wanted to make a statement here in this postseason,” added Milligan. “Give credit to our senior class, our coaching staff for keeping us on track and my teammates in general for keeping me even-keeled.”

The Wildcats (16-9) struck first as senior forward Phillip Noblitt found fellow senior Jared Englert inside for a quick layup, which was followed by junior guard Jackson Kabrick feeding senior guard Reece Milligan for three. But the Panthers (12-12) came right back with consecutive three-pointers from freshman center Gavin Schippert and junior guard MarQuon Givens which put Reitz ahead 6-5.

The lead wouldn’t last however, as Kabrick connected from three-point land, drew a foul, and completed the four-point play in the next possession to put the Wildcats up 9-6 with 3:54 left in the first. Givens would find the rim once more, but baskets from Kabrick and senior guard Josh Weidenbenner gave the Wildcats a 13-8 lead as the first quarter drew to a close.

Junior forward Quentin Harmon extended the lead with a three a couple of minutes into the second quarter, but sophomore guard Khristian Lander, the No. 1 ranked point guard in the Class of 2021 according to 247sports.com, returned fire with his own three to cut the Panthers’ deficit to five points. Englert found a look at the front of the rim for a point-blank layup, to which senior forward Gehrig Tenhumberg answered back with a drive on the other end thanks to a Givens assist.

Kabrick was able to come up with a steal that led to a fastbreak score, but Schippert connected on a three to keep the Panthers within four points, 20-16. The Wildcats were able to give themselves some space thanks to a jumper from Englert and a three from Kabrick in the final minutes of the quarter. Sophomore guard Owen Dease was able get one more basket in for the Panthers, but Jasper was able to come away from the first half with a 25-18 lead.

Givens was able to create a jumpshot opening to start the third quarter, and Lander split his free throws after drawing contact to make it a two-possession game. Milligan made both his shots as he was fouled on the other end, but Lander was able to fight through contact and make it to the rim to once again make it a four-point game. Englert went one-of-two from the line to put the Wildcats up 28-23, but a three from Dease and a layup from Givens tied the game at 28-all with 3:13 left in the third. The deadlock was temporary as Milligan knocked down a corner three a minute later to help Jasper reclaim the lead 31-28. Englert was able draw a foul and get the following free throw to extend the lead and give the Wildcats a 34-28 advantage going into the fourth.

The Jasper Wildcats cheer as head coach John Goebel holds up his trimming from the net after Saturday's Class 4A boys basketball sectional championship game in Evansville. The sectional title is Goebel's sixth overall and his second during his tenure at Jasper. For more photos from the championship, click here.

A midrange strike from Kabrick opened the final quarter, to which Lander quickly responded with a three. Four more points from sophomore forward Ethan Higgs cut it to 36-35 with about six minutes left in the game. Weidenbenner drew a foul and hit both his shots to keep the Wildcats ahead, but another drive from Lander kept Reitz on Jasper’s heels. Milligan found room for a layup of his own that gave the Wildcats a 40-37 cushion, and also came up with a crucial defensive rebound after a missed three from Lander with about 30 seconds left in the game. He would hit both of his free throws to make it 42-37. But the Wildcats could not rest as Lander once more found the rim to get the Panthers within a possession of tying the game with 17 seconds remaining, but it was not meant to be. Kabrick and Englert went three-for-four in the game’s final seconds from the charity stripe and Englert recorded the final rebound that secured the 45-39 win and the sectional title.

Kabrick led the Wildcats with 14 points, while Englert and Milligan both had 12. Englert also finished with 13 rebounds. Lander had 13 to lead Reitz and Givens finished with nine.

Jasper now moves on to the regional round where they will be facing the 10th ranked Center Grove Trojans (19-8) in Seymour on Saturday.

Goebel doesn’t have any illusions about how difficult the next round of play could be, saying everyone who makes it to this point is a powerhouse in their own right. But the Wildcats have been able to hold all of their opponents to under 50 points during their sectional run so if they continue that, they give themselves a puncher’s chance to keep going.

“We’re out of the frying pan and into the fire,” said Goebel. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, it’ll be a bloodbath down there, but hopefully we’re up for the challenge.”




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