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North Side hoops ends 52-year semistate title drought

HUNTINGTON — Keion Brooks Jr. found himself all alone at the basket in the closing seconds of Saturday’s semistate victory over Merrillville.

The sophomore threw down an emphatic slam as time expired.

It wasn’t a pretentious thing. It was a “phew” thing.

Oh, and a “we are back” thing.

It had been 52 years since North Side was last able to celebrate a semistate championship prior to its 82-73 victory on Saturday at Huntington North.

The fourth quarter felt about that long for the Legends and their fans.

A Juan Quarles bucket with 6:19 left in regulation put North Side up by 21, but the Pirates made it interesting the rest of the way. Merrillville went to a full-court press defensively and forced the Legends to beat them from the free throw line. As the minutes passed, the lead continued to shrink…15 points…10 points…eight points.

With Quarles fouled out, Brooks Jr. holding on with four fouls and Jaylen Butz hobbled with a thigh bruise, North Side led by just six with 20 seconds left.

But the Legends survived, making 8-of-10 free throws over the final 75 seconds of the game to win and erase 50-plus years of falling short.

1975. 1976. 1978. 1992. 1995.

Every year has a story of the then-Redskins appearing on the verge of returning to Indianapolis, only to stumble somewhere along the way.

But not this year.

“This is special because I went there and I know how hard it is to get (to state finals),” North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq said. “I was on the team (in 1995) that lost trying to get there.

“For us, for alumni, it’s a big deal. It’s special.”

His players echoed that sentiment.

“It feels great, not only for us but for our school, our staff and everybody that is invested in us,” Quarles said.

Merrillville (21-8) did not make it easy. Despite falling down big in the second half, the Pirates fought back tenaciously. Coach T.J. Lux utilized his deeper bench and North Side’s shaky free throw shooting to climb back into the game. But the Legends buckled down defensively, particularly late. North never allowed sharpshooter Jonah Jackson or do-everything forward Cameron Wilbon to find a rhythm. The duo who entered Saturday shooting a combined 300-of-586 (51.1 percent) from the field finished just 8-of-28 (28.5 percent) against the Legends.

“Defense and execution,” said Quarles when asked what the keys to victory were.

North Side (27-2) outlasted Merrillville’s comeback bid partly due to knowing it was coming. Butz was a big presence under the basket defensively all game long, but particularly in the late stages when the Pirates were attempting to score quickly. The senior was able to contest shots and clean up misses on the boards despite being visibly affected by a sore thigh. He finished with 13 points and 18 rebounds.

“(Coach Khaliq) told us at halftime that the fourth quarter is when they like to make runs,” said Butz. “We knew it was going to be tough.”

As the celebrating carried deep into the evening on the floor of North Arena at Huntington North, there were already some thoughts on next week’s game — a showdown with Ben Davis (22-5) for the 4A state title.

The Legends will look to win their first-ever championship in boys basketball and first for a Fort Wayne Community Schools institution since Northrop in 1974.

“We haven’t come this far for nothing,” senior Davontae Kinnie said. “We are going to go down there and win one.”

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