LUCAS — It was a seemingly inconsequential non-conference road loss in December, but the lessons learned that night have served Lucas well.
The Cubs were playing at Lexington two days before Christmas and everything was going according to plan. Lucas was playing its traditional hard-nosed defense and held a 32-22 fourth-quarter lead.
Then the wheels came off.
Lexington outscored the Cubs 12-1 the rest of the way. Lex's Jack Depperschmidt connected on a 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds remaining to propel the Minutemen to a 34-33 win and send Lucas to its second straight loss and third in its first five games.
“We wrote the book on how to blow a game that night,” Lucas coach Taylor Iceman recalled about that night after the Cubs throttled top-seeded South Central in the Division IV district semifinals Tuesday in Willard.
“We could have sat in the locker room and cried about losing a game in December. But we learned from it and got better and it paid off," Iceman said.
Lucas (18-7) will try to defend the district championship it won last year at 7 p.m. Friday in Willard. The fifth-seeded Cubs take on No. 3 Norwalk St. Paul for a district crown and a berth in next week’s Sweet 16.
While the name on the front of the jersey is the same, the Lucas team that will take the court Friday looks nothing like the team that reached the regional championship game last year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season.
Career scoring leader Logan Niswander has graduated, as has defensive stopper Carson Hauger. Riley Gossom, the man who would have succeeded Niswander as Lucas’ career scoring king, was seriously injured in an automobile accident in the preseason.
Filling in for that battle-tested bunch is a group of greenhorn freshmen and sophomores who are only now becoming acquainted with the bright lights of a deep postseason run. Sophomores Andrew Smollen, Corbin Toms and Andrew Fanello and freshman Logan Toms all are playing key roles this season.
“You see these young guys and they are so nervous. I’m getting cottonmouth in the district semi game,” said senior point guard Ethan Sauder, one of two holdovers from last year’s team. “They’re big games. I feel a little more comfortable but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got to go out there and play our hardest.”
The team’s undisputed leader, Sauder scored his 1,000th career point in Tuesday’s 34-26 upset of South Central. He already is the program’s career assists leader and has helped Lucas to four straight sectional crowns.
Like Sauder, fellow senior Ethan Wallace has taken on a bigger role this season. He was a supporting actor on last year’s regional final team, although he took the lead in last year’s 47-45 win over McDonald in the regional semifinals, scoring 13 points.
“They’ve been in so many big games and big situations. They’ve prepared themselves,” Iceman said of his terrific tandem.
“This whole year was about growing and learning and becoming better for the tournament. Well, we’re here now. We’ve put ourselves in this situation so it’s just a matter of going out and being us and doing the things that we’ve learned.”
Lucas’s hallmark all season has been its suffocating defense. The Cubs have surrendered just 41.1 points a game through 25 games and have held opponents to 40 points or less 11 times, including twice in three playoff games.
“If we play defense we’ll be in just about every game,” Wallace said. “We know who we are and everybody else knows who we are. … We are going to come out and compete every night.”
With each postseason victory, Iceman senses his team’s uncertainty melting away.
“We’re playing well and we’re gaining confidence,” Iceman said. “They’re starting to believe in themselves and that’s a scary thing.”