Prior blowout is old news for Wildcats, Tigers

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s T.D. Nottingham, left, and Evansville Memorial’s David Luebbe pursued a loose ball in the Wildcats’ home opener in December. The Tigers sailed to a 76-51 in that game, which the Wildcats recall as not one of their better efforts. Jasper will get a shot to redeem itself against Memorial in Saturday’s Class 3A regional at Washington, where the Cats and Tigers will battle at approximately noon.

Herald Sports Writer

Thankfully, they can all look back on it now and laugh. Well, kind of.

That night back in December, remember? Celebrating 100 years of Jasper basketball? A 76-51 drubbing by Evansville Memorial that shredded through the nostalgia and feel-good vibes by the end of the first quarter?

Now, the revisited memories are delivered with bluntness and a slight beam.

“We played like crap,” Wildcat junior Tyler Begle said with a sheepish grin. “They came out and embarrassed us on our home court.”

“Horrible defense. That’s all there is to it,” classmate Rhiley Eckert said. “They ran up and down the court all over us the whole game.”

The Cats’ effort incorporated far more “did not’s” than “did’s” in Jasper coach John Goebel’s mind.

“We just didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency. We weren’t a very physically tough team, we didn’t have any energy on defense, we just didn’t look like a team that enjoyed basketball or understood basketball or was motivated to beat a good basketball team,” Goebel said. “We didn’t fundamentally, I guess across the board, just didn’t do anything that resembled a team that was ready to compete at the highest level.”

Things are different now.

And as Saturday’s noontime Class 3A regional semifinal in Washington between the Wildcats (14-9) and Tigers (16-6) approaches, both sides can attest to the notion with confidence.

Memorial coach Rick Wilgus has witnessed a transformation firsthand. While the 32-year coach branded the Jasper performance as the win that “jump-started our season,” the Tigers stumbled against Evansville Bosse in overtime in their next game and lost to Bosse again by 26 points in the Southern Indiana Athletic Conference Tournament in mid-January. Two weeks later, Princeton stomped Memorial by 27 points.

Then came the sectional at Princeton, where Memorial gashed the host Tigers 76-56 in the semifinals before nipping Bosse 61-59 in overtime.

With those experiences in mind, thinking Jasper will be a pushover at regional won’t fly.

“If our kids are going to be floating around out there, we’ll bring them back to earth,” assured Wilgus, a 1975 Forest Park High School graduate whose Ranger team lost in the sectional final to Jasper in his senior year.

In their regular-season matchup, there was little resemblance between the two teams. Memorial forced Jasper into 11 first-half turnovers en route to a 27-8 lead after the opening quarter.

Jasper’s eighth turnover led to an alley-oop throwdown by Memorial forward Adam Eberhard, who torched the Cats for 26 points. The junior averages almost 20 per contest, but perhaps most telling are his team-best 4.4 assists per game.

“There’s teams that have tried to put a lot of emphasis on guarding him and our other players recognize that and take advantage of that,” said Wilgus, whose team dishes out 16 assists per game and also boasts guards Brandon Auker (12.5), Eric Decker (11.1) and Ben Stachowski (10) averaging double figures in points.

For Jasper, the December loss opened players’ eyes.

“Just getting beat that bad is what it took to realize, ”˜We’re not as good as we thought we were,’” said Jasper guard T.D. Nottingham, who came off the bench versus Memorial but has started every game since then. “We played with (Evansville) Harrison, so we were probably thinking, ”˜We’re pretty good. We’re better than what people were going to expect.’ Then we get drummed by Memorial and it just kind of showed, ”˜We aren’t as good as we thought we were and we’ve got to put the work in to get better.’”

Nottingham noticed the intensity in practice elevate immediately. And after faltering 60-40 to New Albany on Feb. 1, the focus was renewed.

“After the New Albany game, we all buckled down in practice and we started getting wins,” Eckert said. “And it’s all been up from there.”

Since then, Jasper is 8-2 and hasn’t allowed an opponent to reach the 60-point mark after the Cats yielded at least that in nine of their first 13 games.

During their sectional title victory last Saturday, nobody typified the Cats’ re-emphasis on defense quite like forward Alex Allen, Goebel said. The sophomore didn’t register a point versus Heritage Hills, but corralled seven rebounds and five steals and a pair of blocks. More than anything, Allen’s offerings helped curb the Patriots from making a final push back into the ballgame. And that, in turn, points to what makes this team so much different from what it was in December.

“What you saw against Memorial, when things got bad, they got worse,” Goebel said. “And what we’ve been able to change since then is, we’ll go through maybe 30 seconds or a minute now in a game when things won’t go our way, like in the Heritage Hills game Saturday. We started the second half and they went on a 10-0 run and cut it to 34-30. And we didn’t panic. We didn’t start to try forcing up frenzied shots, we didn’t get rattled, we didn’t start complaining. We pulled together and fought it off and dealt with it. … We find better ways to stop the bleeding now.”

Saturday’s rematch with Memorial presents another chance for comparison, on a stage the Cats are visiting for the first time  since 2002.

“High school basketball is a funny thing when you know anything could happen,” Goebel said. “It’s quite possible that we could walk out there Saturday and Evansville Memorial could do the same thing to us again, because they are a very good basketball team. But I don’t think this time it’s going to be from lack of effort.”

Contact Joe Jasinski

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