INDIANAPOLIS — In many ways, Saturday’s Class A boys basketball state finals played out as a reversal of fortunes.
Triton had played the role of underdog throughout the state tournament, upsetting a trio of higher-ranked teams with wins over Michigan City Marquette, Pioneer and Lafayette Central Catholic on the road to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Even the Trojans’ sectional-opening win over Culver Community could be considered an underdog-style win. After all, although Triton had finished out the regular season with a 10th-place ranking in the AP’s Class A poll, they were playing a scrappy Cavalier squad on their home floor, a team which had already beaten them 46-42 at the Trojan Trench back on Jan. 11.
And while the Trojans entered the state tournament ranked dead-even with Borden in a tie for 10th place, Triton seemed like the favorite at tip-off Saturday with four trips to the state finals in the last six seasons playing against a Braves lineup making its first appearance at state. Five of Triton’s players had dressed for the program’s last trip to Bankers Life in 2011, and Clay Yeo had played in that competitive loss to Indianapolis Metropolitan.
But, contrary to expectations, it was the Braves who showed greater poise at the outset, holding Triton to shaky 4-of-17 shooting in the first half while jumping out to an 18-9 halftime lead.
Suddenly, it was the Trojans who were battling from behind against a disciplined team controlling the clock in the halfcourt. It was the same formula Triton had used so successfully throughout the tournament, most notably in its semistate win over Central Catholic just a week before, and it proved equally successful for Borden as the upstarts held off a furious second-half rally by the Trojans for a 55-50 win and the Class A state crown.
“We didn’t get off to a very good start, and that hurts. That’s one thing that I didn’t want to happen,” said Triton head coach Jason Groves. “We dug ourselves a hole, and that’s the one thing I didn’t want to happen. It didn’t look like it was (Borden’s) first time here. They looked like they’ve been here four times, and we looked like it was the first time we were here.”
Saturday’s state runner-up finish wasn’t just the end of the line for the Trojans, it also signalled the end of an era in Triton basketball.
The loss marked the last time Clay Yeo would don the Triton uniform. The smooth 6’6” Valparaiso recruit has pretty much captured every honor possible for the Trojans over four seasons with the program, setting single-game and single-season scoring records for Triton on his way to a career-best 1,992 points for the program.
His 19-point fourth quarter Saturday propelled him into first place on Marshall County’s all-time scoring list, 13 points better than Plymouth alum Kyle Benge’s tally of 1,979 set in 2005.
As he had done so many times before, Yeo put his team on his back, but unlike those many memorable performances, it wasn’t enough to put the Trojans over the top.
“I was a little bit more aggressive,” said Yeo of his fourth-quarter performance. “I knew we were down, and every time I had the ball I tried to create to get us to the point where we had a chance to stay in the game and just try to win.”
Triton has enjoyed a measure of success most programs only dream of under Groves’ stewardship, with four semistate championships and six straight sectional titles in Groves’ eight-year tenure with the team. But the Trojans are unlikely to find another player quite like Yeo.
“Like I’ve said before, Clay, as a coach at a small school, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to coach a player like that,” said Groves. “He’s meant everything to our team and our program, and he’s accomplished so much. I think the thing that I’m most proud of is he’s really mature, he’s a good person off the court, not just on the court. We’re going to miss him in every way possible, not just as a basketball player.”
For what it was worth, Yeo made a believer of Borden head coach Doc Nash, too.
“The kid is good, he is good. He’s the best player we’ve played, and I think he’s going to have a good career at Valpo, so give him all the credit in the world,” said Nash. “We knew what he could do. He’s more athletic, he’s bigger than us. We knew he was going to do it, and we did our best to counter him.’
While Saturday’s Marshall County scoring record made for a nice consolation prize, Yeo has said that he wants his basketball career at Triton to be measured not by individual stats but by the championship banners he’s helped hang in the Trojan Trench. This season brings the total to eight at all stages of the state tourney over his four-year career, an impressive tally certainly but still one shy of the one that mattered most.
But while it may not have been quite the storybook ending Yeo had been hoping for, this season’s run to state didn’t make for too bad a finale, either.
“I think in my four years this is probably the most enjoyable one, being in the senior role and trying to take the leadership role with these guys,” he said. “What people don’t understand is we’re friends off the court, too. We do everything together, and I think that will continue when the season’s over. It was a fun season, and it didn’t end quite the way we wanted it to, but it’s been a great ride, a great run and a lot of fun.”