CENTRAL POINT — A player in disbelief, a coach in disgust and a team in disarray, and this was only 61/2 minutes into Tuesday’s marquee Class 5A boys basketball matchup between No. 1-ranked Churchill and third-ranked host Crater.
Prolific sophomore post Nate Bittle was tagged with his third foul of the game at that pivotal first-quarter moment and, despite a gritty effort by his teammates, the 6-foot-10 void loomed too large as the Lancers steadily built momentum and secured an eventual 66-45 win at Crater High School.
“We got frustrated just with a lot of different things,” said Crater head coach Chris Schmerbach of the Midwestern League loss.
“I think Bittle’s three fouls in the first quarter was a big factor in the game, for sure,” he added. “When you get three and then you sit a quarter and come back in the second half, his aggressiveness just wasn’t what it usually is around the rim, both rebounding and blocking shots and just being a presence down low.”
Bittle scored five points right off the bat, altered a handful of shots and helped Crater (11-5, 5-2 MWL) break Churchill’s full-court pressure to build an early cushion in front of an energetic crowd. Saddled with an offensive foul and another on defense after contesting a shot, the top 20 Class of 2021 recruit found himself in a tough spot following a turnover and when the referee’s whistle blew, Schmerbach knew he couldn’t have a do-over.
“Give credit to Churchill, they did a good job of taking it right at him,” said the coach. “I took a gamble playing (Bittle) with two fouls and in hindsight I should’ve taken him out and given him a little break and talked to him about how we want to play defense moving forward. I didn’t and he ended up getting the third one.”
Churchill (13-3, 8-0) didn’t need much of a window of opportunity but the Lancers certainly took it thereafter, pulling even with the Comets on a quarter-ending buzzer-beater. A late second-quarter surge allowed Churchill to build a 31-23 lead at halftime.
“I thought our guys did a nice job without Nate,” said Schmerbach of the initial transition. “We kept it even for the most part in the second quarter but it kind of got away from us with turnovers at the end of the quarter. It was just not exactly how we wanted to execute it down the stretch.”
The third quarter essentially was an even exchange, but Churchill’s nine-point edge soon ballooned in the fourth quarter to allow the Lancers to win going away for their fifth straight winning margin of 19 or more points.
Brian Goracke, a 6-4 wing, scored 27 points while fellow juniors Silas Bennion (15 points) and Kaelan O’Neil (14 points) also had big efforts for Churchill.
Bittle led Crater with 13 points, four blocks and two steals despite limited playing time, while junior Jayden Vranes had nine points and seven assists in what was a missed opportunity but certainly not a damaging loss for the Comets.
“We talked a lot about how one game doesn’t define our season,” said Schmerbach, “it’s one in a stretch of them. Churchill’s really, really good. We’re not the only team they’ve made look like that this year.”
“I think if we keep improving and keep grinding and fixing things,” he added, “we can be at their level by the end of it, and that’s kind of the goal and kind of the plan.”
On the bright side, the coach was pleased with the efforts turned in by sophomore Hunter Chubb and junior Kruger Edwards. Chubb gave the Comets a big lift off the bench with 10 points and five rebounds, while Edwards helped pick up the slack from Bittle’s early departure with four points, six rebounds, three blocked shots and two assists.
“Hunter Chubb came in and hit some big shots, which was nice to see, and I thought Kruger had some nice moments of being aggressive on defense and really stepping up when Nate wasn’t there protecting the rim,” said Schmerbach.
CHURCHILL (66): Bennion 15, Wallace 0, Morgan 4, O’Neil 14, Pia 4, Goracke 27, Carson 2. Totals: 23 14-19 66.
CRATER (45): Vranes 9, Ray 3, Horton 2, Chubb 10, Eaton 4, Edwards 4, Johnson 0, Bittle 13, Dance 0. Totals: 16 10-11 45.
3-point goals — Churchill 4 (Bennion 2, Goracke 2), Crater 3 (Chubb 2, Ray 1). Technical foul — Crater coach Schmerbach.