East Noble hoops goes from “terrible” to sectional title contenders

Junior Ali Ali, right, and East Noble has already won the Northeast 8 title. With the postseason looming, the Knights are aiming for more. (By Justin Kenny of news-sentinel.com)
Junior Brent Cox averages nearly a double-double for East Noble. (By Justin Kenny of news-sentinel.com)
Scooby Robinson is one of the few East Noble seniors that see consistent playing time. (By Justin Kenny of news-sentinel.com)

Brent Cox isn’t afraid to say what everybody else is thinking.

“Our basketball program was terrible,” the East Noble junior said last week.

“Terrible” is a strong word, but there’s no arguing the fact that basketball hasn’t exactly been a beacon of excellence in the last 15-plus years.

Since the program’s last sectional championship in 2001, the Knights have finished with a winning record just four times. Two of those seasons have come recently, with identical 12-11 records being posted two years ago under Coach Chad Cripe and last year in Coach Ryan Eakins’ inaugural campaign.

But this year is different, much different. Winter for East Noble athletics on the boys’ side isn’t being highlighted by lifting sessions in anticipation of football in the fall. Instead, the Knights are laying waste to opponents on the basketball court.

Entering the final few days of the regular season, East Noble is 19-1, champions of the Northeast 8 and next week will be the host of a 4A sectional that it may very well be the favorite in. And that includes the likes of Carroll (17-3) and North Side (18-5) in the field.

“All I ever heard since my freshman year was, ‘football, football, football,'” junior Ali Ali said. “It feels great to finally get us recognized for basketball.”

Eakins deflects much of the credit to his players, a group largely made up of guys who have played years together. But at a rural school like East Noble, that’s the case most years.

What makes this particular group so good?

“We have some tremendously-talented guys who are going to play college basketball at some level, but we also have some guys who understand and accept their roles.

“It doesn’t happen very often.”

Ali is the guy who makes it all go. At 6-foot-6 and the ability to bring the ball up the floor, drive and finish, the junior is a threat from the moment the ball heads up the court. His averages (16.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists) attest to that.

But Ali isn’t alone. Cox averages close to a double-double (9.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and is a pest in the post. Sophomore Hayden Jones hits at a 43 percent clip from three and guys like Drew Devers, Michael Bender, and Scooby Robinson are annoyingly pesky on both ends.

Even with the talent it has on the roster, the Knights don’t strike many as a team that instills fear into opponents. But what this group does so well is its ability to outwork and break down the other team. If you’re not ready for a back cut to the basket, East Noble will burn you. If you don’t properly block out, the Knights will convert on second-chance opportunities time and again.

Perhaps this team’s greatest asset is its fearlessness. Yes, it has only played one SAC team this year (a 48-41 win over Bishop Dwenger on Feb. 7), but don’t expect East Noble to be scared when it potentially stares down Carroll or North Side or Snider next week.

In fact, the Knights are looking forward to it.

“We are (19-1) now and people are still saying we can’t beat Fort Wayne teams,” Ali said. “When they come to our house (for sectionals), we are going to let them know what’s up in Kendallville.”

Turns out it’s more than just football these days.

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