“We’re 3-2 and I go in the locker room and we sit down and have a man to man talk,” Eagles coach Ray Zawadzki said. “We can either stay mediocre or we can, all of us the coaches and players, push ourselves to reach a higher level. They made a commitment we want to get better coach.”
Still, Russia was a lot to conquer. And in the fourth quarter, after the Eagles missed two 3-pointers during their third-quarter stall, the Raiders found the tempo and rhythm they had lost since holding a 22-9 lead and pulled away in the final minutes for a 41-33 victory at Trent Arena.
“We told these guys a couple of days ago you might as well take that 26-point win on December 17 and throw it in the trash,” Russia interim head coach Spencer Cordonnier said. “Because I guarantee you one thing it’s not going to be that easy. That’s exactly what I expected.”
Cordonnier knows exactly what to expect in Friday’s 7 p.m. region final at Trent. Russia (24-3) faces Shelby County Athletic League rival Jackson Center in the region final. They split during the regular season and shared the league title.
“I told them you had to grind one out tonight,” Conrdonnier said. “You got the meat grinder come Friday night.”
To get there, the Raiders used three players to guard Troy Christian (23-4) leading scorer Parker Penrod. He scored 20 points in the first meeting but only four in this one. Then they had to break away from a one-point lead twice early in the fourth quarter. Hayden Quinter, who scored a game-high 17 points, scored twice for a 33-28 Russia lead that never got shrunk below three.
“We just had to get some tempo back and be ourselves,” Cordonnier said.
Zawadzki said after the district final that Russia and Jackson Center were on a collision course all season to meet in the regional final. But even when his team was down 13 two minutes into the second quarter, he knew that because of that man-to-man talk in December that his team would man up.
“When you win 18 in a row, a 22-9 deficit doesn’t faze you,” Zawadzki said. “You trust each other and you trust the system.”
It just wasn’t enough to spoil the matchup Shelby County fans were expecting.
Jackson Center 54, Columbus Patriot Prep 45: Jace Mullenhour could have predicted Jackson Center’s 0-for-8 shooting start going by his own pregame experience.
“During pregame I could not hit a shot,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, boy.’ But then I got some good looks, and it fell for me tonight.”
The Tigers (26-1) recovered to shoot 44.2% and Mullenhour, an all-Southwest District first-teamer, scored a career high 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting, including 4 of 6 from three-point range.
Mullenhour is 5-foot-10, but he often sits in the low post. Defenders play behind him, but he knows ways to score.
“I prefer to be in the post,” he said. “I just feel more comfortable down there. And I feel like I shoot that at a higher clip down there.”
The slow start did not concern Tigers coach Scott Elchert.
“They were taking good shots, so you know that eventually they’re going to fall for these guys,” he said. “Because we’ve got usually five guys out on the floor capable of scoring. And that’s what’s made us dangerous all year long.”
Attacking the basket and blocking shots were Patriot’s strengths, but Elchert didn’t like the way his team handled those two scouting report keys at times.
Patriot Prep’s Keith Prysock (15 points) and Christian Stokes (10 points) got to basket far too much for Elchert’s liking for some easy layups. And the Tigers got their shot blocked eight times because they didn’t shot fake enough.
“We had to many lapses where we let them play to their strengths,” Elchert said. “When we did those things, I think you saw the result. But I just felt like we were a little off in terms of inconsistent with what we needed to do with our game plan.”
The Tigers are in a regional final for the fifth time in 12 years, all under Elchert. In 2012 they won and finished as state runner-up. They won again in 2016, lost in 2019 and didn’t play in 2020 because COVID halted the tournament.