The Elks will face Westerville Central, also playing in its first state tournament, at 8:30 p.m. Sunday in the final. Central (22-2) defeated Cleveland St. Ignatius 51-42.
“It’s just another opportunity for us,” House said. “If you think about it as another huge stage, you might get flustered by it. It’s just another game we can go out and get a win like we have been.”
Centerville High School junior Tom House drives past Mentor's Jonah Waag during their game on Saturday night at UD Arena. Michael Cooper/CONTRIBUTED
The Elks depend on man-to-man defense, and they were locked in against a Mentor team that averaged 86 points. Cupps’ game plan was to stop dribble penetration by their high-scoring backcourt and contest 3-point shots. The Cardinals made only 3 of 25 3-point attempts and shot 38.8 % overall.
“It’s hard to guard them,” Cupps said. “There’s a reason they’re 25-0. I thought Emmanuel [Deng] did an incredible job with his length and ability to move laterally. It was a group effort. We were in gaps and we used our length to try to challenge passes.”
To beat Central and its athletic backcourt of Tasos Cook, Landon Tillman and Quincy Clark – 37 combined points against Ignatius – the Elks will need a similar effort.
“You’ve just got to keep it as simple as you can, and still get the game plan in that you need,” Cupps said. “The positive for us is that we’ve played so many different styles.”
Central coach Kevin Martin watched the first half of the Centerville game. His assistants have been preparing for Centerville and Mentor all week.
“They’re good,” Martin said. “Anytime you have a point guard with the abilities of the Cupps kid, they have ability to control a game. And they’ve got good pieces around him, guys that can shoot the ball, they defend you. It’s going to be definitely a test.”
Martin said becoming state champion ultimately comes down to his team playing it’s style, and Centerville is taking the same approach.
“We do all this prep for each team, but if we do what we do, then we’re going to be all right,” Gabe Cupps said.
One setback Centerville didn’t expect against Mentor – but was prepared for – was Cupps getting in rare foul trouble. He played only 23 minutes and picked up his fourth foul in the final seconds of the third quarter. That meant he would be on the bench for most of the fourth quarter, but fortunately for the Elks they began the fourth up 36-24.
“I was a little bit worried, especially when I got my fourth, that I wouldn’t be able to play until late in the game,” he said. “Kyle [Kenney] came in and handled the ball well. I just put my trust in them hoping they could get it done until I could get back in.”
Kenney, a sophomore, is the usually the ninth man, but he was ready to fill in for Cupps because he’s a part-time member of the scout team that is known as the Gold Squad. That’s the group of players who rarely play in games. Kenney’s experience playing offense against the starting five prepared him for his big state-tournament moment.
“We spend the first hour, hour and 15 minutes every day just playing defense against the Gold Squad,” Gabe Cupps said. “The Gold Squad, they make probably 95 percent of the shots they take in practice, and it just makes us so much better defensively when you’re guarding guys that can make shots rather than playing people that can’t really play. They don’t miss. It’s crazy.”
Brook Cupps chimed in: “They’re running some men’s league in a few years.”
Gabe Cupps: “That’s why we’re winning right now.”
The Elks’ defensive consistency was important as they suffered through a dysfunctional second quarter on offense. They were outscored, but only by 8-7, and still led 22-15 at halftime.
“That’s just how we play – that’s a non-negotiable for us,” Brook Cupps said. “It’s something our guys take pride in, and we think it carries us in games like that and in moments like that throughout the game where you’re not making shots.”
The Elks came out hot in the second half. House and Tre Johnson scored inside and Cupps made a pull-up jumper and a high-off-the-glass layup for a 30-15 lead. Mentor didn’t crumble, but the Elks controlled the rest of the game.
“I think the first four minutes of that third quarter are a really big deal,” Brook Cupps said. “Fight ready is one of the things we say. These guys came out swinging to start everything this week.”
Cupps shuffled the lineup regularly and got numerous contributions from other starters Johnson (seven points, three rebounds) and Deng (two assists) and reserves Ryan Keifer (five rebounds), Quinn Hafner (two 3-pointers), Jayson Hayes and Kenney.
“We got guys stepping up in huge roles,” Cupps said. “Keifer, Quinn and Kyle gave us great minutes off the bench.”
One more win and all nine of them – and most certainly the Gold Squad – can call themselves state champions.