The postseason is about big moments, and trailing by seven midway through the fourth quarter, No. 21-seeded Benson saved its best for last en route to a 58-52 first-round state playoff win over No. 12-seeded Southridge on Wednesday night, March 1, at Southridge High School.
“This is huge,” Benson’s Kavon Bradford said. “It’s been a long time since Benson won a playoff game and this is just huge for all of us who’ve been working hard all season. Shoutout to Coach Earl (Clark) because this is the first playoff win of his career.”
Bradford finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but he did the bulk of his damage when it mattered most, scoring 11 straight fourth-quarter points to erase a seven-point deficit and push the Techmen on to the second round.
The senior — who with his teammates boisterously celebrated their victory in the locker room postgame — credited his coach, Earl Clark, for keeping the team composed in the wake of the Skyhawks’ early fourth quarter run.
“Coach Earl just told us to focus and stay together, and good things will happen,” Bradford said. “It’s a game of runs, and we made that final push and got the win.”
For Southridge, which started three juniors and two sophomores, the loss was disappointing, but at the same time, it was valuable experience for a team whose inexperience seemed to rear its head when the game was on the line.
“Earl did a nice job of jumping into that one-two zone, and we haven’t had a problem with that all year, but in this game, we got a little discombobulated,” Southridge head coach Phil Vesel said. “We had that really bad turnover that turned into an and-one, and that seemed to be the moment our guys got big-eyed. I thought the youth really showed up there.”
The Skyhawks led 14-10 after a quarter and 23-21 at the half, despite playing much of the first half without standout point guard Kaden Groenig, who was forced to the bench after getting into early foul trouble.
In Groenig’s absence, the home team leaned on post Dante Scott and forward Alonzo Hoff, along with freshman guard Drew Groenig, who hit a big three late in the second quarter to keep Southridge on top.
While Kaden Groenig’s absence was felt in the immediate over the course of the first half, its effects were felt throughout the game as a result of what comes from repeated stretches on the bench.
“I think the hard part for him is he couldn’t get his rhythm and never really got it going,” Vesel said. “He had a couple open looks in the second half there that he usually knocks down, and sometimes when you don’t have your rhythm, you’re rushing yourself. I felt like he was playing that way a little bit offensively.”
Kaden Groenig finished with 10 points and lamented the first-half situation, along with some of what he considered questionable calls.
“It was really tough,” Kaden Groenig said. “That’s one of the only times in the season where I’ve been in foul trouble. They were definitely some tough calls, but that’s the way it goes.”
Even before making a fourth-quarter run, Southridge appeared poised to blow the game open early in the third quarter, thanks in large part to Groenig and sophomore guard Keenan Reckamp, who combined for 11 early points to put the Skyhawks ahead by 10.
But Benson battled back thanks primarily to 6-foot-4 wing Dylan Douangphrachanh, who used his size to repeatedly get to the rim en route to eight straight Techmen points to end the quarter, leaving Benson trailing just 40-38.
That lead quickly grew to seven when Groenig, Reckamp, Carter Fortune and Vitomir Petcov got buckets to start the fourth, but from there, it was all Bradford, along with a swarming Benson defense that — at least on this night — clearly got to the young Southridge squad.
“I thought we competed really well,” Vesel said. “We had stretches where we really executed at a high level, and so I was proud of that. But when you play a team as talented as Benson, when you have those moments where you’re disconnected it can haunt you and that’s that was the difference.”
Bradford said that difference may have been the product of a mindset fueled by the notion by many that they were in over their heads against the higher-seeded Skyhawks.
“Yeah, we might’ve had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder coming in here because there were a lot of people saying they were going to smack us and run us out of the gym,” Bradford said. “But we used that as fuel to keep pushing through and get the win.”
While the pain of the defeat was still fresh in the mind of Vesel shortly after the game, it didn’t stop the coach from ultimately appreciating his team and the season they had, along with what it might do for them going forward.
“I’m proud of them,” Vesel said. “As a coach, you’re always pushing so I never really take time to reflect until the season ends, and now that it’s over I thought we played well overall. I can’t praise our guys enough for the effort they put in this year.
“I think this might put a little bit of a fire in some of the guys.”
Groenig agreed, saying he was already excited about his team’s prospects for next season.
“We’ll definitely gain some experience from this,” Groenig said. “All of our starters next year will have playoff experience now, so hopefully we’ll go farther.”
Southridge scorers included: Reckamp 11, Fortune 10, K. Groenig 10, Hoff 7, Scott 5, D. Groenig 5, Petcov 4.
Benson scorers included: Douangphrachanh 16, Bradford 15, Van Deusen 11, De La Torre 10, Kelly 4, Crane 2.