Liberty-Benton a 51-38 loss in a D-III
district semifinal Thursday at the Elida Fieldhouse. “It's been a strange year for us,” St. Henry head coach Joe Niekamp said.
Not after a white-hot 10-1 start to the year became a 2-7 stumble to the regular-season finish line.
Yet, here were the Redskins, their red-and-white clad fans roaring at the top of their lungs as their beloved team ripped apart Findlay Liberty-Benton, the top-ranked team in the state, in a Division III district semifinal Thursday night at the Elida Fieldhouse.
St. Henry won the game 51-38, sending the Eagles, the state runner-up a year ago, to their first loss in 22 games.
“It's been a strange year for us,” St. Henry head coach Joe Niekamp said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs and sometimes things don't make sense. But we played very good basketball tonight and winning in the tournament is the only thing that matters right now.”
Darren Siefring had a lot to do with the Redskins' success – Thursday and of late. The 6-foot-5 senior scored eight consecutive points during a stretch early in the opening quarter as St. Henry built a 12-7 advantage.
Siefring did the majority of his damage in the paint as the undersized Eagles had no answer for him. He finished with a team-high 14 points.
“He was a real force for us tonight and he has really come on strong late in the season,” Niekamp said. “He was a big factor in our success and we knew we could take advantage of having him scoring inside.”
Siefring said he was determined to step up right from the start to make sure this wasn't his last game. He attacked the boards as well, pulling down 8 of his team's 31 rebounds. The Eagles (21-1) grabbed only 20 boards.
“I felt like I could get some easy baskets and fortunately the shots fell,” Siefring said. “Being a senior, I wanted to be a leader on the floor tonight and it's awesome that things worked out for us.”
Junior Spencer Niekamp added 8 points in the win while Brent Prenger, Ryan Wehrkamp and Tony Stahl all chipped in 7 points apiece for the Redskins, who shot 20-of-39 from the field, mostly on a diet of layups and short jumpers.
L-B head coach Steve Williman walked out of the locker room after the game with a look of disappointment on his face. He honestly didn't have to say anything at all.
“They played harder than we did,” Williman said. “They executed much better than we did and played with more energy and enthusiasm. They were the better team tonight.”
It should be noted, though, that St. Henry's defense, in many ways, ultimately decided this game. The Redskins were intense and relentless against the Eagles, who struggled mightily to shoot the ball, going just 11-of-38 from the floor.
They were a miserable 4-of-17 from beyond the arc and only sophomore star Aaron Craft hit for double figures, pumping in 17.
Craft, plagued by three first-half fouls, nailed two NBA-length treys early in the third to slice a 31-19 halftime deficit to 35-25 but the Eagles never got any closer.
St. Henry led 41-29 going into the fourth and forced Craft's teammates to beat them. It worked as Craft accounted for 12 of his team's 20 second-half points.
“I was very pleased with our intensity on defense,” Niekamp said. “We didn't give them the looks they had been used to getting. I also really liked the way we handled Craft. We made it tough on him tonight.”
So now, the team that had ridden unbeaten streak throughout the season is finished while the team that struggled down the stretch is still alive in the tournament.
Next up is a showdown with Ottawa-Glandorf at 1 p.m. Saturday in Elida.
“We came together as a team and did what we needed to win this game,” Siefring said. “We are playing well right now and we feel confident that we can keep it going.”