A double-overtime loss Jan. 30 to Herron left Southwestern at 3-9.
While the record was troubling, head coach Brady Days kept an optimistic view and it paid off. The Spartans won seven straight in a frenetic two-week span to build momentum for the postseason.
Finally at full strength and the player rotations sharpened, Southwestern ran through Hauser, Rising Sun and Morristown to capture the program’s first sectional championship since 2016.
Days and the Spartans now prep for a return to the Martinsville Regional where the program has had no success – 0-2 with losses in 2011 and 2016.
“Our goal right now is to win a game at the regional,” said the veteran coach in his 15th season at Southwestern.
Southwestern (13-10) faces Bethesda Christian (18-7) in the regional opener at 10 a.m. Saturday. The second semifinal pits Class A, No. 5 Tindley (16-9) against Shakamak (10-12).
The regional title game follows at 8 p.m.
Southwestern started the season 1-6 with 1,000-point career scorer Anick Hartsell and leading 3-point shooter Ethan Wendling out with injuries.
“We got Anick and Ethan back but it still took some time to gel,” said Days.
The schedule through the end of January was loaded with teams that finished with double-digit wins like Edinburgh (18-6), Lutheran (21-4), Triton Central (13-8) and South Decatur (15-8). There also was a 64-39 loss to Franklin in a rare meeting for the program with a Class 4A opponent.
“I look back on it and we had it tough,” said Days. “We were playing some really good teams. They were probably 50-50 games whether we were a well-oiled machine or not.”
With COVID-19 messing with scheduling, the Spartans faced an 8-games-in-16-day scenario to close out the season. That’s when Southwestern started rolling and it carried over into the sectional on its home floor.
The Spartans eliminated Hauser, 57-44, and Rising Sun, 51-48, to set up what played out as an epic affair against Morristown.
Back and forth the two teams went as nothing was decided in regulation. In the first overtime,
Wendling drained a 3-pointer in the final seconds to send the game to a second overtime.
Riley Snepp stepped up and hit the game winner to eliminate Kyle Crim, who scored a career-high 35 points in his final game as a Yellow Jacket, and Morristown, 68-67.
In the hours after the victory, Days asked his seniors what their record was against the Yellow Jacket senior class. In games since fifth grade, Saturday night’s win made the Spartan seniors 5-10 all-time against their Morristown counterparts.
Days allowed the team to enjoy the victory but set Tuesday as time to move on to a regional that has a clear-cut favorite and three equally-balanced teams.
“On paper, Tindley is the best team,” said Days. “They have the toughest schedule in Class A basketball.”
Tindley is a 20-point favorite (Sagarin ratings) over a sub-.500 Shakamak squad.
In the same ratings system, Southwestern and Bethesda Christian is a toss-up.
“Bethesda Christian has five kids over six-foot-tall as starters,” said Days. “They have a special player in Demonte Ferguson (6-4 junior forward). He can do a little bit of everything.”
The two programs had three common opponents this season – Waldron, Lutheran and Christel House Academy. The Patriots defeated Waldron, 66-62, in overtime on Jan. 23.
“We watched the Waldron film and Waldron was in control most of that game,” said Days.
Rebounding and defense will be keys for the Spartans.
“Defense is where it will end,” he said. “We have to get stops. That’s our focus.”
Southwestern will need its balance – Anick Hartsell (13.1 ppg), Wendling (11.4 ppg) and Aiden Hartsell (13.9 ppg) led the way offensively with Christian DeArmitt (7.5 ppg) and Snepp (7.9 ppg) capable of contributing.
Wendling led the team shooting 45% from the 3-point line. Anick Hartsell followed at 39%.
Snepp (5.2 rpg) and DeArmitt (5.1 rpg) are the rebounding leaders.
With no players with regional experience, Days will have to use his own to help prepare his team for the experience playing on John Wooden Court. He is using the Spartans’ 2020 county tourney title and subsequent 1-3 record after the celebration as a starting point.
“We won (the county tourney) last year then we had some hiccups after that,” said Days. “Hopefully we will learn from that.”