By the time Matt Fine entered his team’s locker room at halftime of his team’s sectional championship game against Yorktown on Saturday, he saw his players were determined.
The Central boys basketball coach could tell his team was ready to get back on the court, that it was eager to try to make up a seven-point deficit.
The Bearcats were ultimately successful in that pursuit, grabbing a 49-44 victory to win a sectional championship. Central will play Norwell in the Class 3A Blackford Regional at noon on Saturday. A win would mean another game on Saturday night in the regional championship.
Before Fine had his chance to address his players during Saturday’s halftime, senior Tyler Arens had words for his teammates as well.
Teammate Jay’lin Barnes remembers the speech being simple. Arens simply expressed the level of play that brought the Bearcats to a seven-point halftime deficit was unacceptable. He told his teammates they needed to do better if they wanted to prolong their season another week.
“His speech in halftime was incredible,” Barnes said. “He got us energized, back in focus and ready to go back out there.”
Arens would later take charge of some team huddles in the second half as the Bearcats picked up their comeback win on Saturday. The behavior seemed out of character to teammates and coaches, who have observed Arens to typically be more reserved. Barnes said that reserved nature means that when Arens speaks up, teammates are eager to listen.
Fine said he had hoped to see a more vocal Arens in the past, but had accepted that was simply not the senior’s personality. Yet the leader Fine had been looking for was right in front of his eyes on Saturday.
“Reality set in, it could have been our last game,” Arens said. “And to be honest, they had us beat. But we came back, we never stopped fighting. And I guess it’s just one of those things where another person inside of me just came out. And I’m glad it did.”
Despite being a senior, Arens will be playing in his 11th game for the Bearcats on Saturday. He transferred from Marion for his junior year, sitting out last season due to transfer rules. He missed 11 games this season due to an ankle injury and returned for the regular season finale.
The Bearcats (10-11) are 8-2 this season in games in which Arens plays, and 2-9 in the games he missed. The 6-foot-8 post averages 13.2 points per game and 8.3 rebounds. Both are team highs.
Arens described his injury as a severe sprain of his left ankle. He said the rehabilitation process was so difficult, he sometimes considered quitting when he was having a bad day. He credits the support of those closest to him, notably his father, for helping him through those hard days. His desire to win the first sectional championship of his career also fueled him, he said.
Teammates took his injury hard as well. It happened in practice, as Central prepared for its Jan. 17 conference game at Richmond. Arens’ teammates were so shaken up, Fine said practice almost needed to be stopped for the day due to the injury.
A loss to Richmond followed. After wins against Southside and Huntington North, an eight-game losing streak was next for the Bearcats, culminating with a 29-point loss to Frankton in which the Eagles dominanted from the start.
“We played Richmond two days later, and didn’t know how to play without him, had no idea how to play without him,” Fine said of the immediate aftermath of the injury. “And shouldn’t know how to play without him, because he was such a big part of what we did.”
Along with the disappointment of seeing Arens get injured, his teammates also experienced elation in getting him back on the court. Fine said it changed the entire team’s attitude, and that Arens makes those around him better. And they’ve also gotten a taste of a side of his personality they hadn’t previously seen, one that can take charge and help guide his teammates to victory.
“That’s the better Tyler,” teammate Marcus Dukes said. “Him being out these last two years a lot, so I think that helped him become a better leader. He just needed it. (He’s) a senior, and we look up to him.”