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HUNTINGTON — A heartbroken Columbia City received its semistate runner-up trophy Saturday with a message from their head coach.
“The big thing was stay together,” Columbia City head coach Chris Benedict said. “You have 1,200 people buying tickets to come see you play...We talk about together a lot. When you win it’s fun to go through it together but now is when you really need to lean on each other and that word comes to mean something.”
Columbia City went into Saturday’s class 3A Huntington North semistate together and the Eagles left that way after seeing a deep run through the postseason end at the hands of Culver Academies 51-49.
In the second half, the size and athleticism of Culver Academies caught up to a Columbia City squad that defied the odds most had for them this season.
“Their athletes really got after us on the defensive end of the floor and kind of put us on our heels,” Benedict said. “To our kids’ credit, they fought back.
“Our kids fought their tails off the entire time and that’s all you can ask for from your kids.”
The Eagle versus Eagle match-up had an undersized Columbia City team picking up where it left on at regional.
Despite Culver starting three players over 6-foot-5-inches — including 7-foot-1-inch Chier Ajou, Columbia City controlled the lead for most of the first half.
Five players got in the scoring column in the first quarter for Columbia City as the lead grew to as much as six points.
The run through the postseason surprised some watching a team heavy with juniors and sophomores. Saturday, underclassmen made the future bright for Columbia City scoring 43 of the Eagles’ 49 points.
Junior Brandon Gay gave Columbia City its first lead 7-6 on a three-pointer with 4:25 left in the first quarter.
The Eagles held on to that lead going into halftime. Sophomore Derek Hinen scored seven of his eight points in the first half and handed out four assists.
Hinen gave Columbia City its largest lead in the first half 18-11. Hinen hit a three-point bucket with 6:52 left in the second quarter.
Culver closed out the half with a momentum swing in its favor. The Academy Eagles closed the deficit to 22-20 by halftime and kept it going in the second half.
Culver shot 62 percent from the field for the game (21-of-34) including 6-of-7 in the fourth quarter.
Jermaine Myers came into the contest averaging 20 points per game. Myers put up nine of his team-high 15 in the second half.
“I thought he was very steady,” coach Benedict said of Myers. “He controls the game really well. He was able to find some guys inside and get them going.”
Teammate Juwan Brescacin matched Myers in the post with 15 points.
Just 1:05 into the third quarter, a three-point play inside by Willie Strong gave Culver its first lead since the first quarter 25-22.
Columbia City sophomore Drew Benedict kept his team within a basket throughout the third quarter.
Benedict scored eight of his game-high 18 points in the third including highly contested three-point shots far outside the perimeter.
“We really relied on our shooters tonight,” Hinen said. “Drew did an excellent job. Brandon Gay knocked down some shots.”
Gay gave the lead back to Columbia City momentarily. With 2:16 left, Gay stole a pass at midcourt and curled in a basket along with the foul.
The 34-33 lead was the last City saw. A drive to the lane by Myers gave Culver a 35-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
A deep three-pointer by junior Drew Burnsworth got Columbia City to as close as three points with 15.7 seconds left.
Full court pressure gave Culver an opening to clinch the game on a dunk by Brescacin.
Down five points with six second remaining, Columbia City continuing fight was shown in a buzzer beating three-pointer by Gay.
“Just proud of my guys on how they competed and the journey they went on that last month of the season has been a tremendous thing to get back to Columbia City basketball,” coach Benedict said.