BOURBON | Two years in IHSAA purgatory, a sectional runner-up finish and a sectional championship.
The patient seniors at Gary 21st Century established a tradition at the Class A charter school.
Moments removed from their season-ending loss to Pioneer in the Triton Regional semifinals Saturday morning, they had perspective.
“I feel like we built some chemistry this year and built up the program,” senior Louis Brown said after leading the Cougars with 15 points, four blocks and two steals in the 63-49 Pioneer win.
“Next year they will be back and be in rhythm and focused. It’s just a matter of time.”
Brown, Mykel Mayes and David German started Saturday as members of the first graduating class that experienced four years of varsity basketball at 21st Century. Reserves Ahkee Porter, Jamel Dickerson and Myrin Kirksey also belong to that group.
Pioneer’s 3-point shooting, second-chance points and dominant start to the second half ensured this was the Cougars’ final game.
With sophomore Carter Skaggs hitting three 3-pointers and the Cougars making fundamental mistakes, Pioneer (21-3) built a 30-22 halftime lead.
The game seemed within reach for the deeper Cougars as Pioneer's starters scarcely rested. However, Skaggs hit two more treys and a baseline layup as part of a 15-0 run that put Pioneer up 45-24 midway through the third quarter.
Gary 21st Century (15-8) cut a 16-point lead to 10 at 53-43 with 4:02 to go in the game, but after Brandon Scruggs (19 points, 16 rebounds) hit a 3-pointer and Skaggs (24 points) followed with another with 2:12 to play, the game was out of reach at 61-43.
“We left it out on the floor,” Cougars coach Rodney Williams said. “I thought we had a little gas left in the tank, but we just didn’t make it happen. I’m just so, so proud of the boys. You’ll see us here again.”
The Cougars only had 14 defensive rebounds, shot just 23-for-69 (33.3 percent) and 1-of-14 from 3-point range.
Pioneer was making its third straight regional appearance while the Cougars were in just their second IHSAA postseason tournament.
“They weren’t better than us,” Brown said. “We just didn’t get in a rhythm, and they were able to come out on top. They made shots. We didn’t.”
The Cougars’ rough 4 a.m. summer workouts begat a sectional title and some growth that was not limited to basketball skill development.
“I’m proud of becoming a man,” Brown said. “Every day at practice we talked about building character and getting better at becoming a man.”