When the basketball coaches of the Hoosier Hills Conference gather for their annual end-of-the-season dinner — to exchange barbs, war stories and select the All-HHC teams — the league champion is traditionally the first invited to hit the buffet.
Jeffersonville boys’ coach Chad Gilbert wants to eat first. Attempting to draw a charge on a coach driving toward the food line is usually not a good idea, but Columbus East’s Brent Chitty is setting up to block Gilbert from the title.
The lead in the HHC will be at stake when defending champ Jeffersonville travels to Columbus East on Saturday night. The Red Devils (11-2 and ranked No. 13 in Class 4-A) and Olympians (8-1) share the top spot at 4-0, with Jennings County (9-5, 3-0) lurking off the pace.
Gilbert has made winning the league a point of emphasis. Jeff has won nine conference crowns (and 13 consecutive league games), while East won its only HHC title during the 2002-03 season.
“Every year we want to win it,” Gilbert said. “The kids like to be a team that goes down in history.”
The Olympians are a direct reflection of Chitty, a fiery veteran coach now in his third year at East after 13 seasons at Evansville Central. They are aggressive and relentlessly pound the ball into the paint.
“They’re outstanding,” Gilbert said. “We knew this would be their year. They don’t settle for an eight-footer when they can back you down and get a two-footer.”
Just ask New Albany. The Bulldogs surrendered 99 points (in double overtime) and lost at East in the HHC opener on Nov. 30. New Albany coach Jim Shannon called it “the worst defensive performance” he had ever seen.
East features four double-digit scorers in 6-foot-6 junior center Bryce Lienhoop (14.6 points, 11.5 rebounds), senior forwards Zach Martindale (12.4 ppg) and perimeter sniper Ridge Harris (10.5 ppg) and senior guard Nate Rich (10.4 ppg).
“Lienhoop does a great job around the rim,” Gilbert said. “He’s very crafty inside, and we have to find Harris at the 3-point line. They’re a high-scoring team (18th in the state at 72.7 points per game) that likes to get up and down. It should be a lot of fun.”
East will have its hands full with Jeff senior star Darryl Baker, who is averaging 25.5 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 62.6 percent from the field. He’s getting help from Keenan Williams (11.4) and Drew Ellis (10.8), and key reserve Myles Harvey is back after missing two games with an illness.
Jeff’s key will be holding its own inside. The Devils are outrebounding their opponents by nine per game despite being undersized.
“Rebounding will be huge,” Gilbert said. “We’ve played quality opponents all year, and having played some great teams has put us in a position to face a quality opponent like East.”
Both teams suffered a loss to 4-A No. 5 Columbus North. The Bull Dogs conquered East 69-59 on Dec. 18 and clipped the Devils 61-55 in the final of the tournament at Richmond on Dec. 29.
* In boys’ games to watch today: Floyd Central (3-10, 0-3) will look for its first league win at Jennings County; Silver Creek (3-9) will visit New Albany (6-5); and Scottsburg (3-9, 2-5) will travel to Class 2-A No. 7 Clarksville (9-3, 5-0) as the Generals seek to solidify their Mid-Southern lead.