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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.

Chesterton Sectional - Chesterton vs Merrillville

Merrillville's Johnny Bernard is guarded by Chesterton's Jack Eaton during Friday night's Class 4A sectional semifinal game in Chesterton.

CHESTERTON — Matchups are the bottom line in the Indiana high school basketball tournament.

Always has been. Always will be.

It's been that way for over 100 years and will be the same in 2118.

The team with the best player on the floor has the greatest chance to win. Period.

This age-old point of view played out yet again on Friday night at Chesterton High School, where the Trojans hosted Merrillville in the Class 4A sectional semifinal.

In Merrillville's 80-59 win over a very good team on their home floor, Johnny Bernard was the reason for the win. Period.

The 6-foot-4 senior guard scored 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He had complete control of the game when he was on the floor.

"He hits 15-foot step backs and not a lot of people can do that," Chesterton coach Marc Urban said. "He was an Indiana Junior All-Star last year. He's a good player."

The last two winters Bernard's name hasn't come up in conversations with area fans when talking about the "best of the best." Honestly, the Bernard name hasn't popped up first in my mind either.

And I don't know why.

"I think I'm the best player in the Region," he said after the win. "But I have to thank my teammates for setting me up, too. I couldn't do what I do without them."

Last year's Merrillville team made it to the Class 4A semistate at Huntington North and Bernard didn't even start. Bernard still had a game-high 32 points in the 82-73 loss to Fort Wayne North.

Merrillville coach T.J. Lux spoke of how little varsity experience his team had coming into the season. That means outside of Bernard, the Pirates had almost zero sectional experience.

They didn't look like it at all on Friday night.

"It helps to have Johnny Bernard," Lux said. "I coach him so I think he's pretty good. He's another guy on our team who's improved tremendously."

I would agree with that. When I first heard his name, I came to watch the kid and he would amaze me here and there. Then, out of nowhere, he'd made a play that made no sense.

But those gaffes haven't occurred much this season.

This kid has been as good as gold.

The only run Chesterton had all night was when Bernard went to the bench with a slight injury. The Trojans hands went up. The crowd got to their feet.

But it all ended when No. 3 checked back in.

"I've had some inconsistent games," Bernard said when I asked him why some in the Region continually overlook him. "But I know my teammates all believe in me."

On Jan. 6 at home the Pirates were fired up in the Chesterton game because The Times had the Trojans No. 1 in our poll and Merrillville was No. 6. Lux's team was No. 1 when the postseason began and will be on Saturday night when it plays Valparaiso for the championship.

All remember the Vikings beat the Bucs on a controversial call in the regular season. I believe Merrillville will use this as added motivation.

Bernard did not take the bait.

"We just have to beat (Valpo) early on," he said. "That way no one can take it from us at the end."

Chesterton's Austin Peterson walked by as I spoke with Bernard and the two talents embraced. Great sportsmanship was shown.

"Go get them when baseball gets here," Bernard said of the Purdue-bound ace.

It's awesome when talented players show great respect after a hard-fought battle.

I got some heat earlier this season when I said Valpo's Brandon Newman was the area's best player. Indiana University coach Archie Miller was in Chesterton on this night, like watching Newman play.

On Saturday night Bernard has a chance to prove his value again.

It will be a blast.

This column solely represents the writer’s opinion. Reach him at steve.hanlon@nwi.com.

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