Jack Ferguson had no where to run and nowhere to hide in the final basketball game of his career.
The Homestead High School senior standout tried to play with the ball. He tried to play offensively off the ball. He made cuts, he drove the ball, he came off screens, and it was all futile because Brandan Johnson wasn’t going to allow Ferguson to go anywhere alone.
The North Side junior made it his mission for 32 minutes to not just slow the Spartan scorer, but stop him completely. And he nearly did.
That level of defensive effort and execution by Johnson, as well as the rest of the Legend athletes, are key reasons as to why North Side is one of just four IHSAA Class 4A teams still competing.
North Side (26-2) will battle Merrillville (21-7) today in the IHSAA Semistate at Huntington North at 6 p.m. Castle (24-3) will face Ben Davis (21-5) at the Seymour Semistate in the other 4A game.
A month ago, North Side was a good team at both ends of the court; a really good team. A group doesn’t finish its regular season 21-2 if they aren’t really good. However, the ability to play at the level needed to compete for a state championship hadn’t been reached by the Legends, and veteran coach Shabaz Khaliq knew it.
“We are more conscientiously aware of what we’re trying to accomplish collectively as a group,” Khaliq said. “In earlier games, we had individuals that understood what their roles and responsibilities were, but as a group, we were not a cohesive unit.”
In North Side’s final eight games, it allowed opponents to score at least 59 points in seven of those games, and four were nail-biters that weren’t decided until the buzzer. However, the postseason has been an entirely different story.
Beginning with a 56-49 sectional win over DeKalb, the Legends have limited their opposition to fewer than 50 points in five straight games.
“In the regional, especially,” Khaliq said of last week’s two wins over Homestead and Carmel, “we were dialed in mentally and we were a cohesive unit.”
North Side held the Greyhounds to just 49 points (and that was with an overtime session), while the 38 points that Homestead scored were by far (10 points) its lowest offensive output of the season.
Ferguson had been averaging nearly 20 points per game, but Johnson and the “cohesive” Legend defensive plan held him to just one made shot in seven attempts. He finished with more fouls (five) than points (four).
Khaliq makes no secret that he and his players share the same mentality when it comes to the defensive end of the floor. Like Ferguson found out, the North Side guys are going to be aggressive and in your face providing constant pressure.
“Our kids are more tuned into playing man (defense),” Khaliq explained. “They don’t like to play a zone. They don’t really want to play a zone. We do have an aggressive group of kids. Playing zone isn’t aggressive enough for me either.”
Khaliq’s teams have progressively gotten better defensively during his seven years at North Side. For each of the past four seasons, North Side has held opponents to 58 or fewer points on average, so that emphasis has now become an expectation.
The great thing about the North Side defensive strategy is that, when it is played well, it can shut down the state’s best teams. However, it isn’t simply a matter of effort on the players’ parts. There is a great deal of thought that goes into every possession, so that is where Khaliq has seen the most growth from his team.
“In the regional,” Khaliq said, “guys rotated, they took away shots, and they communicated. The help was there on screens. We were bumping guys coming off of screens. We did the things that we wanted to do all season, but we were mentally dialed in and hopefully that carries over to this week.”
The Pirates will present a number of defensive challenges for the Legends. They have balance (four double figure scorers) and they play hard at the offensive end.
Merrillville gets stronger offensively as the game plays on. The Pirates score nearly twice as many points on average in the fourth quarter as they do in either the second or third periods. So attention to detail – for all 32 minutes (or more) – will be imperative for the Legends.
But what concerns Khaliq the most is the fact that Merrillville has seven seniors who have played a lot of basketball in their careers.
“They do a great job of getting the ball to the right people,” Khaliq said. “But the scariest thing about them is that they are senior-laden. Those kids aren’t going to want to lose.”
Ferguson didn’t either. But sometimes when you have a “dialed in” North Side defense chasing you, a team has no choice.