LAFAYETTE | The basketball caromed into the third row of the lower-level bleachers during the third quarter of Saturday's Class 4A Lafayetet Jefferson Semistate at Crawley Gymnasium into the hands of a Merrillville fan.
He playfully tucked the ball away for a moment as if to try to hide it from the official before tossing it back.
On a day when little or nothing went right for the Pirates, even an escape with the basketball couldn't have saved them from Carmel at that point. The defending state champions performed a 30-point dissection and Merrillville was cast unwittingly in the role of lab frog.
"We've been an emotional team and the emotion of the game got us in the beginning," coach T.J. Lux said. "It's just frustrating that we never able to get into a solid defensive rhythm. The things we rely on, half-court defense, the ability to share the ball and be patient on offense, we weren't able to execute. We lost track of guys. We fell behind, then we tried to get it all back and it snowballed from there."
It didn't take the snowball long to turn into a seismic avalanche. Within striking distance, at least mathematically, down 13 at the half, the Pirates found themselves 25 in arrears before scoring in the second half. The fierce Merrillville pressure that's brought it back before, causing plenty of foes to crumble, never fazed the seamless Greyhounds, who were dropping in layups when they weren't hitting 3s.
"They're the defending state champions for a reason," Lux said. "They play so well together. They share the ball well. Our defense wasn't able to match their offense's execution. I'm proud of the way they played. We had breakdowns, but they didn't quit. Nobody gave up the fight."
Merrillville's 36 points marked the lowest total by a Pirates team in six years. For Jake Raspopovich, the numbers didn't really matter.
"Honestly, I'd rather lose by 30 than a buzzer beater," said Raspopovich, who quarterbacked the football team within a game of state. "It's really sad, but you can't be mad forever. This whole season, nobody expected us to get out of the regional at all. You don't catch many teams with 11 seniors. We were like a big family We all love each other. We're all going to miss playing together."
Lux, who played for the 1995 Merrillville team that lost by a point to Ben Davis in the state finals, hoped his team could finish their careers in Indianapolis like he did.
"It's OK that it hurts," he said. "The further you get, the more it hurts. They care so much and are so passionate about everything. My biggest disappointment is I won't get to coach them anymore. The only guys who believed in this group at the beginning were the guys in the locker room. They made a commitment to each other. Everyone's true, No. 1 goal was to win basketball games. They've been a pleasure to coach."
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