In the years since Bankers Life Fieldhouse opened in 1999, it has established a reputation as one of the top NBA arenas.
Or so Mark James has heard. Other than a couple of visits, James has generally avoided the Fieldhouse. Nothing personal. It’s just that the 62-year-old coach wanted to make it there with his team for the state finals.
It’ll finally happen on Saturday night when James brings Ben Davis (22-5) to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the Class 4A state finals against Fort Wayne North Side (27-2).
“I haven’t been to a Pacer game since they moved here,” James said at Monday’s state finals coaches’ media day at the Fieldhouse. “So now, after coaching here, I can go to Pacer games. I used to go to Market Square Arena, but that was kind of the thing I decided.”
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James is in his 35th season overall and sixth at Ben Davis, which is making its first state finals appearance since winning back-to-back 4A titles in 1995 and ’96. He came close with Franklin Central in 2009, losing by three points in the semistate to a Bloomington South team that went undefeated on its way to a state title. James coached at Franklin Central for 26 years after starting out at Covington from 1983-85.
“(Making the state finals) isn’t really about the coaches, though,” he said. “It’s about the players.”
The Giants are riding a 13-game winning streak into Saturday’s game. Aaron Henry, a 6-6 junior, is the leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and rebounder (6.7). But seniors Datrion Harper (11.5 ppg, 3.3 assists), Jalen Newsom (10.2 ppg) and Josh Brewer (10.0 ppg) have all played major roles in the tourney run.
Ben Davis lost to Center Grove 59-53 in overtime on Jan. 20 and hasn’t lost since.
“I think they feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of basketball,” James said. “None of them are being recruited by the Iowas or Purdues. They are just good high school basketball players and they are OK with that. That’s what makes it neat. These kids came through our program since they were sixth and seventh graders and they are making lifetime memories.”
James is also hoping for a lifetime memory on Saturday at the Fieldhouse, where he hopes to become a more frequent visitor.
“I’ll start coming to games now,” he said. “It’s only 15 minutes from my house so that’s a good thing.”
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>> Giants’ opponent “monsters”: Ben Davis may be up against its toughest test of the season against a Fort Wayne North Side opponent that has already knocked off three Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference teams: Lawrence North, Lawrence Central and Carmel. The latter was a 52-49 overtime win in the regional championship.
North Side is led by 6-11 senior Jaylen Butz (16.7 ppg, 12.2 rebounds), a DePaul recruit, and 6-8 sophomore Keion Brooks (20.5 ppg, 7.4 rebounds), a top national prospect in his class. James used the term “monsters” when describing the dynamic North Side duo.
“They’ve been huge,” North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq said. “No only offensively, but Jaylen limits teams to one shot a lot of times. He’s a tremendous passer and he can put the ball on the floor. He starts our break and gets the outlet high. Keion is so tough because he can go in and out and play anywhere on the floor. Those guys create opportunities for other guys.”
>> New territory for North Side: This is the fourth appearance for North Side in the finals but first since 1965. The last school from the Fort Wayne Community School system to win a state title was Northrop in 1974. North Side made the finals in 1933, 1955 and ’65 but never won a title.
“It means a lot on a lot of different levels,” Khaliq said. “You start with the school and the tradition of the school and having a chance to represent the school and the alumni that have come out of the woodwork to support us. It’s big for our school district as well. Snider got here in ’09 and we’re hopefully here to win one for our school and school district as well. We take pride in that.”
The North Side “Legends” nickname doesn’t sound familiar, there’s a good reason. North Side changed its name this year via a student vote after 88 years as the Redskins.
“It’s slowly catching on,” Khaliq said. “We still catch ourselves sometimes. The alumni don’t call us ‘Legends’ yet. But either way, we’re North Side. If you identify yourself as a ‘Legend’ or a ‘Redskin’ it’s irrelevant as long as you identify yourself as a follower of North Side.”
>> Busy week for Attucks: First-year Attucks coach Chris Hawkins has been hit by an onslaught of well wishes from unfamiliar phone numbers after the Tigers clinched their first state finals appearance since 1959 with an 84-77 win over Evansville Bosse on Saturday.
Attucks (24-4) will play Twin Lakes (25-3) in the 3A finals at 6 p.m. Saturday. Hawkins said he wants his team to embrace the spotlight this week while also dialing in on Twin Lakes.
“We try to keep it as normal as possible,” Hawkins said. “We want the kids to know about it because we want them to know the history. We want them to know about the past.”
Bill Hampton, who will go into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame this week, was a senior starter on the 1955 team that made history as the first all-black school to win an open state tournament. Hampton talked to the team before Saturday’s win.
“He talked about always playing like you are down 10 points at the start of the game,” Hawkins said. “I heard that in the huddle. The kids kept repeating that when we were down 9-2. The kids have embraced everything that goes with it.”
>> Tindley into finals for first time: This is new territory for Tindley (23-5), which will take on Lafayette Central Catholic (22-6) on Saturday in the Class A finals.
Tindley coach Bob Wonnell said his team “may come out like Brett Favre, throwing the ball 100 miles an hour” at the start of the game.
“But I don’t see us being like a deer in the headlights at all,” he said. “That’s not our personality.”
The Tigers are led by juniors Eric Hunter (26.1 ppg), Hunter White (17.4 ppg) and K.J. Coleman (11.3 ppg). Lafayette Central Catholic is making its first state finals appearance since 2003, led by seniors Avery Denhart (16.0 ppg), Ben Tharp (14.0 ppg) and freshman Carson Barrett (10.3 ppg, 6.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists).
Wonnell said he might be the most excited person in the building on Saturday morning.
“I’ll be up in a stance, probably,” he said. “I’ve tried to sit down for a heartbeat, like I see some of those calm, cool guys. It might be like 7:55 on the clock and I’ll be back up and moving. I can’t help it. I can’t sit still.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.
Saturday’s state finals
Games will air on Fox Sports Indiana
Class A: Lafayette Central Catholic (22-6) vs. Tindley (23-5), 10:30 a.m.
Class 2A: Frankton (22-6) vs. Crawford County (22-6), 12:45 p.m.
Class 3A: Twin Lakes (25-3) vs. Crispus Attucks (24-4), 6 p.m.
Class 4A: Fort Wayne North Side (27-2) vs. Ben Davis (22-5), 8:15 p.m.