Center Grove biggest surprise in state

“I feel like teams don’t respect us. Maybe they think we’re okay, but we’re still trying to prove ourselves.”

GREENWOOD — For three quarters Saturday night, Center Grove didn’t look like a top 10 basketball team in the state, let alone the current No. 3 team in Class 4A.

Avon, a better and more dangerous team than their 8-9 record, led into the fourth quarter by 12 points. But on the sidelines of the Trojans, coach Zach Hahn didn’t panic. No scolding from assistant coaches or players.

“There’s no talking with these guys,” Hahn said in his ninth season at Center Grove. “I don’t have to yell or yell. I’m five years past these days.”

The calm approach works with an experienced team that Hahn describes as “the most capable” group he has coached in his tenure. Point guard Jalen Bundy scored on a contested layup. Marcus Ankney scored a transition basket from an overhead pass from Peyton Byrd. Ankney drilled a 3 pointer. Byrd blocked a shot and Ankney scored another layup.

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A 12-point deficit was reduced to three in 90 seconds. Center Grove took the lead two possessions later after a three-pointer corner from senior Owen Baker en route to a 61-56 win.

This has been a common script for the 16-1 Trojans this season:

∎ Falling behind.

∎ Scramble back in the fourth quarter.

∎ Win game.

Center Grove has won six games by five points or fewer and lost its only game in the Kokomo tournament over the holiday break to a last-second putback by Kokomo’s Flory Bidunga.

“I hope we don’t run out of magic because it’s five or six games like this where you’re 10-12 points behind in the fourth quarter and rushing back,” Hahn said. “It might not work out in the first or second quarter, but if you can put the ball in the basket like we did, that gives us a little cushion.”

One of the top perimeter shooting teams in the state, Center Grove connects as a team 46% from the 3-point line. Ankney, a 6-3 senior committed to Indiana Wesleyan, is the team’s top scorer at 15.9 points per game and shooting 50% from the 3-point line. Ankney is also a willing passer, and players like Baker (55.6% 3-point shooter), Senior Ethan McComb (47.7% of 3), and Junior Joey Schmitz (46.2% of 3) are able to to pay the opponents for it.

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a team,” Ankney said. “When you win it’s fun and we have a team that knows how to win. Even if we’re down 12 in the fourth quarter, we feel like nobody can break us. We will keep fighting and the result will speak for itself.”

It seems like Center Grove came out of nowhere after last year’s 11-13 season. But the Trojans were at the other end of tight games, losing nine times by seven points or fewer or in overtime. Franklin upset Center Grove 54-45 to win section championship.

But Ankney said there’s reason to believe there’s a chance for a turnaround even in the summer.

“The off-season work was crazy,” he said. “I was in there with these guys and saw the work they did. So I know if I show them it’ll go in. It’s a great feeling to trust these guys and I think they trust me too. My role is to make games for others and for the team, so I try to do that.

Though this could be Center Grove’s best team since Trayce Jackson-Davis led the Trojans to a semistate appearance and 21-9 season in 2018-19, there are some concerns. Schmitz, a 6-2 junior and the team’s second-best scorer at 12.8 points per game, is likely to be out for two weeks with a wrist injury. Will Spellman, a 6-5 junior who is third on the team with 9.9 points and leads the Trojans with 4.1 rebounds per game, is struggling with a right shoulder injury.

After Saturday’s win over Avon, point guard Jalen Bundy emerged from the dressing room with an ice pack around his ankle and another on his elbow.

“But every time we cross the lines, they’re ready to go,” Hahn said. “That’s the exciting thing about this team. It’s the difference to have an experienced team.”

Center Grove plays a different schedule than it has in recent years as an independent. All of the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference’s former rivals are off the schedule except for Warren Central (whom the Trojans defeated in the Kokomo Tournament) and Carmel, which is also now independent. Center Grove defeated Carmel 43-41 at home in early January, then hit the road and handed Jennings County its only loss, 68-66, the following night.

But there may be a sense that Center Grove still has something to prove. Against programs like Zionsville (home on Feb. 7) and in Brownsburg (February 21), there are opportunities.

“I feel like teams don’t respect us,” said Bundy, who averages 6.4 points and 4.5 assists per game, which is a team-high. “Maybe they think we’re fine, but we’re still trying to prove ourselves.”

Getting Schmitz back will obviously be a key. But players like Baker, who averaged just 3.3 points into the Avon game and hit two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and the 6-6 junior Byrd have taken big roles when needed.

“Marcus is the best leader I’ve ever had,” Hahn said. “He talks, communicates and when we lose you don’t see a change. We are 10 down and you still see the guys entangle and stay together in groups. These are small things, but they are important. These guys believe they will play the full 32 minutes and win.”

Call Star Reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

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