Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette North Side players celebrate their win over Merrillville in the 4A semistate game Saturday.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette North Side’s Juan Quarles drives for a layup against Merrillville in the second quarter.
Sunday, March 19, 2017 5:51 pm
State wait over
MARK SCHUTTE | For The Journal Gazette
HUNTINGTON – North Side ended a 52-year wait to get to the state finals Saturday by defeating Merrillville 82-73 in the Class 4A semistate at Huntington North.
But it was not until about nine months ago that a trip to Indianapolis seemed like a real possibility.
All along, the Legends knew they would be blessed this season with a pair of Division I college players in senior Jaylen Butz and sophomore Keion Brooks. But it wasn’t until the supporting players – a talented if unrecognized group – bought into the idea of trying to turn potential into reality that things really came together.
"In the summer we all jelled," senior Juan Quarles said amid a raucous celebration. "Last year, we were just five individuals on the team. Our coaches always stressed to us that you can’t win with five fingers, you can win with a fist. We became a fist over the summer, throughout the year, and when this year started we knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.
"So becoming a team was the easy part. Being able to execute it onto the court was the hard part."
The Legends showed just how well they could execute and play together Saturday.
Brooks, with 20 points and five rebounds, and Butz, with 13 points and 18 rebounds, led North Side.
But the list doesn’t stop there, as Quarles finished with 16 points, six rebounds and two steals, Davontae Kinnie and Brandan Johnson had 15 apiece and combined for five more steals.
"I think it gets overlooked," North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq said. "We have Keion, we have Jaylen, they’re special, don’t get me wrong. But you don’t get here without other guys. You don’t get here without Juan Quarles, Elijah Holmes, Davontae Kinnie, Brandan Johnson.
"Those guys are the central part of what we do and they get overlooked. But they’re very humble. Any point and time, they can try to do more. But they play within themselves and do what we ask them to do. That’s why we’re where we’re going."
Where the Legends are going is Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where they will take on Indianapolis Ben Davis for the Class 4A title at 8:15 p.m. Saturday. The Giants (22-5) advanced by defeating Castle 74-71 on a last-second 3-pointer Saturday.
For North Side (27-2), it will be its third trip to state in school history and its first since 1965. Before Saturday, North Side last played in a semistate in 1995, when Khaliq, as well as assistant coach and Brooks’ father Keion Brooks Sr., were members of the team.
"It’s special because I went there, I know what it’s like, I know how hard it is to get there, I was on a team that lost trying to get there," Khaliq said. "So for us, for alumni, for everybody, it’s a big deal. It’s special. We thought we had the team to do it. We had to put the pieces together. Our kids – phenomenal buying into what the coaches have been telling them. That’s the only way you’re going to get there. I’m very proud."
North Side built an 11-point lead by the end of the first half, using its size and quickness to outrebound the Pirates 22-11 and get six steals that helped generate 10 points off turnovers.
The Legends finished the third quarter on a 19-4 run to take a 60-41 lead into the fourth period and built its biggest lead at 66-45 when Holmes hit two free throws with 5:20 to go.
The Pirates then began frantically pressuring the Legends and sending them to the free throw line, where over a two-minute stretch they hit only 4 of 8 attempts.
Merrillville junior Johnny Bernard, who led all scorers with 32, hit a 3-pointer with 1:48 to go that cut North Side’s lead to 74-67. Brooks, Holmes and Kinnie then hit 5 of 6 free throws to make it 79-69 with 41 seconds left.
Mileek McMillan hit a 3-pointer and was fouled by Butz for a four-point play that cut the lead to 79-73, but Brooks hit a free throw and then ended the game with the most impressive play of the day.
Kinnie started things when he picked up a loose ball and took off down the left side when he spotted Brooks streaking down the right side. Kinnie threw it up toward the rim, where Brooks reached behind him with one hand and threw down a dunk as the buzzer sounded.
"I knew it was coming the whole time, he knew it, I knew it, our bench knew it," Brooks said. "It did feel good to put an exclamation point on the end of the game because man, they didn’t stop fighting. Give it up to them, Merrillville kept playing and fighting the whole game."
Now the Legends have one more fight, in Indianapolis.
"It feels good we finally get to make it to Bankers Life and finally get to show off North Side, just show everybody what we’re here to do," Butz said.