CINCINNATI – The halftime plea from Centerville boys basketball coach Brook Cupps was simple: Play defense the way you know how to play defense.
“He said basically we weren’t defending at all, that we were defending horribly,” Elks junior Ryan Keifer said. “And that we were only down eight, so it could only get better from there.”
Did it ever.
The last big shot Cincinnati Elder made was a 3-pointer for a 10-point lead with 2:16 left in the third quarter. The Elks went on a 13-0 run to get the lead and steadily pulled away for a 52-43 victory in the Division I region semifinals at Princeton High School.
“The last four minutes of the third quarter and then the fourth quarter we played defensively at the level that we want to play at,” Cupps said. “That was what really swung the game.”
Next for the fourth-ranked Elks is a regional final matchup against perennial power and third-ranked Cincinnati Moeller (20-4) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Princeton. This is the Elks’ eighth trip to regionals and will be their third regional final since 2016. They’ve never been to state.
“It would be big,” Elks junior Rich Rolf said. “My team and I have worked so hard to get to this point, putting in extra work other teams aren’t willing to do.”
Moeller (20-4) advanced with a 72-69 overtime win over No. 2 Cincinnati St. Xavier (19-3). Alex Williams scored 21 points and Logan Duncomb scored 19 to lead the Crusaders, who shot 59%.
Centerville (23-3) lost 70-52 at Moeller in December. Moeller won state titles in 2018 and 2019 and have been the recent standard for excellence in Division I.
“We’ll talk about Moeller and prepare for them, but our focus will be on us and playing at the level we want to play at, and then we’ll take what happens,” Cupps said. “Our guys will be excited to play because it’s a regional final.”
The first half was not a sign of things to come in the second half. The Elks were flat on defense, which Cupps said led to bad possessions on defense. They shot 23.8 % and struggled to get near the basket. Of their 21 shots, 14 were 3-point attempts.
“I thought if we didn’t start guarding with any type of intensity and urgency we were going to be done and not practicing anymore,” Cupps said.
The Elks were led by the scorers who usually lead them. Gabe Cupps had 16, Rolf 13 and Tom House nine after coming back from a first-half knee injury. He came out of the locker room after the game with his knee wrapped in ice.
But bench contributions buoyed the Elks’ offense on a night when they shot 38.5 % from the field and 61.9 % from the free-throw line, including 5 of 10 in the fourth quarter. Quinn Hafner scored six points and hit a big 3-pointer for a 43-39 lead midway through the fourth. Keifer scored the last of his six points for a 45-39 lead with 2:36 left.
“It’s huge to get that contribution from those guys,” Cupps said. “We know they’re capable, but there’s a lot of nights where they don’t have to. So it’s part of what makes it a team.”
Keifer also helped turn the defensive effort around against Elder (20-4).
“My job was to set the tone on defense, like the tough guy role,” he said. “So any loose ball was mine, any rebound was mine. Just not back down.”
Coach Cupps said, “Keifer was incredible offensively and defensively. He was a big factor everywhere.”
Crowds are also becoming a factor in the tournament. Limited though they are, a tournament atmosphere has evolved. Elder, long known for its loud and purple student section, was loud from the start.
“It kind of made me nervous at first with Elder having their whole student section here,” Keifer said. “But then I started to think this is how it was every game last year, so it should be nothing.”
And Keifer got his team focused on defense and the goal of making it to state.
“Keifer’s defense was outstanding,” Rolf said. “Keifer was our glue man.”
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