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HAMMOND — Montell Bates spent a lot of time on the end of the bench at Eggers Middle School in Hammond.

Short and skinny, it took a few injuries before he ever got his chance to shine, which he did.

"I spent most of the year on the bench," Bates said after Wednesday's practice. "But when I got out there I got to show everyone I could play. I hit a couple big shots in a game."

The 6-foot senior guard had the same feelings of redemption on Saturday night inside the Hammond Civic Center after his Hammond Wildcats beat West Side to win the program's first championship since 2005.

He scored nine in Hammond's 52-40 win that sets up Saturday's showdown against Culver Academy in the Class 3A LaPorte Regional.

"When I was climbing up the ladder, I felt like I showed everyone what I could do," Bates said. "It felt good."

Wildcats coach Larry Moore Jr. has watched the growth of Bates over the last four years. There has been a constant conversation between the coach and the player, something rare in high school basketball these days.

"I've yelled at him more for not shooting than shooting too much," Moore Jr. said. "I've taken him out of games for not shooting before. But he's finally got his confidence this year. When he's open he's going to knock it down."

As a lad Bates was taken to the MLK Courts in Hammond by his uncle, Edward Bass. He was shown the fundamentals and how to shoot. Then, when guys 15 or 20 years older showed up, the 7-year-old was coerced into playing with the "bigs."

"My uncle told me one thing," Bates said. "Catch it and shoot it. It was hard. Everyone was bigger than me and they'd shove me around, but it made me a lot tougher."

In his second year of varsity, Bates has given the Wildcats another dangerous perimeter shooter. He's averaging 10 points a game, but he can explode for a bunch at any moment, like his mates.

In the sectional semifinal against Clark, Hammond hit 11 3-pointers with Bates hanging the net six times on his way to 22 points.

But in the championship game the scorer showed he knows how to play both ends of the floor. He had four steals in the second half, using his long arms to snatch passes out of the air.

As a kid Bates looked up to Kevin Durant and loved how he put as much effort into defense as offense.

"Montell has great anticipation on defense and with his long arms he can do some damage," Moore Jr. said. "He's a very smart kid. Even though he's a shooter that I want to shoot more, his defense has been a key to a lot of our wins.

"He is very important on both ends of the floor."

Moore Jr. said Culver reminds him a lot of Chesterton. The Wildcats lost to the Trojans 67-60 on Feb. 13 in a very close game. The Eagles bring a seven-game winning streak into the regional semifinal.

"They are very well coached and very efficient on offense," Moore Jr. said. "They're a sound team with good players. We need to utilize out athleticism and get out and pressure them. I believe our schedule has prepared us for a game like this."

Bates believes in his team, too. And he wants to climb another ladder to show his critics what is possible when you never stop working.

And believing.

"We have to play as a unit," Bates said of the regional. "We have to take what they give us. We have to play hard on offense and defense, just like we did in the sectional."

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Sports reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.