Coming into Saturday's Class 2A state final, it was obvious it was going to be a game of two different styles of play. Frankton, Crawford County's opponent, was a high-scoring team, averaging almost 70 points per game and beating its opponents by an average of nearly 15 points. The Wolfpack, on the other hand, were best known for their defensive play, keeping their games down into the mid-40s. That was how they had run the gauntlet of the sectional, regional and semi-state, so there was no changing things now.
NOAH - Crawford County junior Noah Sturgeon, who was sick before the game, works against the Frankton defense in the first half. Photo By Wade Bell
The Wolfpack had high hopes with a sea of nearly 3,000 strong, clad in their bright orange shirts that probably would have been visible from space. Crawford County's sixth man had pushed the Wolfpack through some tough times when it looked like the end was coming.
There was one difference on Saturday, however. This was Crawford County's first trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as a state finalist. Frankton, on the other hand, had been here just two years before, having to settle for the runner-up spot. The Eagles came back with fire in their eyes and with plans of taking the bigger of the two trophies home, and this time they brought a defense that military generals would have been proud of. In the end, it was something from which the Wolfpack couldn't fight back. Crawford County would suffer its worst loss of the season and finish in the runner-up spot of the state tournament.
"I think a lot of the credit has to go to Frankton," Crawford County coach Levi Carmichael said. "They absolutely took us out of what we do and what's gotten us here. We talk all the time, 'You're just got to take your opportunities,' and I think before we knew what was happening they had already taken it from us. Once they did and came out like they did, it was really hard for us to get it back to the game we needed to do it."
"That being said, I'm just tremendously proud of this team," he said. "It's the true definition of a team. Today, I hope, as we reflect back on this, one game is not going to be the determination of what this team means, because it is truly a special group. I hope the people in our community realize how special our kids are, how good of kids (they) are on and off the floor."
It took a full minute for either team to score, but Crawford County got on the board first with a lay-in from Nickelson. The Eagles countered quickly with a 7-0 run, but Nickelson quickly closed the gap with a three-ball, leaving Frankton's lead at 7-5.
Adam Beasley later closed the margin to one with a free throw. Frankton's pressure defense, however, went into full throttle, and the Wolfpack suffered four turnovers. The Eagles scored on every one in a 10-0 run to lead 17-6.
Nickleson connected on a second 3-pointer, but Keegan Freestone got one of those back with a freebie and the Eagle advantage was up to 18-9 after one quarter.
"They're tremendously athletic," Carmichael said of Frankton. "We saw on tape, we talked about on tape, they're just a step quicker to the ball. There were several situations where we just have to take one more step and get the ball. There's a loose ball. They just beat us to every 50-50 ball. But, obviously, there's a reason why they're here. As we talked about all week, it was going to be a clash of tempos, and their tempo won out over ours."
The Eagles continued their momentum into the second period as Maurice Knight and Kayden Key drilled back-to-back threes. The Eagles then converted off of a Crawford County miss with Knight getting an alley-oop dunk.
Following a Crawford County timeout and a missed Frankton shot, Ty Nickelson saw an opening and drove straight to the basket, showing the Eagles that country boys could dunk the ball just as well. That turned into a short 5-0 burst as Matt Dearborn got a free throw and Beasley found a deuce inside to close the gap to 12 with two minutes left in the first half.
Knight, however, hit for two more Eagle points. That set up a 6-0 Frankfort run that gave the Eagles a 32-14 lead at the break.
"I think the thing that was a struggle for us is we don't see that (kind of pressure)," Carmichael said. "In Southern Indiana, if you're in 2A, you've got to compete with Providence. That's the way you've got to practice, what style you've got to be going at. We didn't master it obviously, but it was good enough to get by and get us to this point.
Crawford County's Matt Dearborn reaches in to fight for a loose ball against Frankton. Photo By Brian Smith
"But we've not seen a run-and-jump. We've not seen pressure like that really all year. At times versus Forest Park, but as far as a constant pressure, we've practiced it … but till you get here and you experience it, I think it just got us back on our heels a little too much, and before we knew it, it was already out of our tempo and out of our pace."
Things got worse for the Wolfpack in the third quarter as Frankton's pressure throttled up even more. The Wolfpack managed just 2-of-9 shooting from the field. The Eagles began the period with an 8-0 run to lead 40-14. Crawford County continued to fight as Brent Smith swished a 3-pointer. Frankton, however, countered with another 8-0 run to go in front 50-20 with one quarter left.
Crawford County fans, however, still didn't want to see the fight end, and raised their voices in support of their team. The Wolfpack five to take the floor — Beasley, Nickelson, Dearborn, Christian Carlton and Josh Thomas — huddled together as to say, 'Let's show them we belong here.'
Nickelson knocked down a pair of free throws a minute into the period. Frankton countered with two points, but Beasley negated that scoring in the paint and added a free throw for good measure. Smith then made good on a 3-pointer. Travis McGuire scored in the paint for the Eagles, but Nickelson negated that with two from the charity stripe.
Crawford County went on to counter everything Frankton scored, and the Wolfpack won the final period by a 12-10 margin, not enough to win the war, but they did win the final battle to the applause of the sea of orange in the stands.
"There were multiple times there, if there were just one or two more passes, there are plays we could have made," Carmichael said. "We were hesitant. We talked about the moment not being too big, and I think there were several situations where the moment was too big, for whatever reason. This is something we can't really define. You can prep all week for a press and how you're going to attack it, but, when that moment comes in the state finals, when your number is called, you've got to make a play, and I think there were times, for whatever reason, (we) didn't."
Nickelson led the Wolfpack with 14 points, four rebounds and three steals in the final game of his high school career. It was a poor shooting night overall for the Wolfpack, who managed to make just 9 of 33 shots (27 percent) and 10 of 12 free throws. Crawford County uncharacteristically had 25 turnovers in the 32 minutes. However, the Wolfpack won the battle of the boards, 28-22.
"Ty has been that guy in our bigger moments," Carmichael said. "The Providence game in sectional, he's been the guys that kind of breaks the ice, and he got going early. We got a lot of dribble-drives by him to the basket. He was just aggressive. When he's aggressive, he's a tremendous player, and we just needed a couple more to go along with him at that moment early on just to break Frankton's streak a little bit."
Crawford County's Adam Beasley, from left, Christian Carlton (15), Josh Thomas, Ty Nickelson and Matt Dearborn gather before the fourth quarter in hopes of making one last run at the Frankton Eagles. Photo By Wade Bell
Nickelson said the support from the community and others has been beyond belief.
"I don't think we've paid for a meal in probably two weeks now," Nickelson said. "Everybody's wanting to figure out how they can support us — cook us dinner, bring out lunch, snacks for the road. Everybody's pitching in and everybody is behind us. Hopefully, that will continue next year. We've got so many fans. We brought so many people up from Southern Indiana and, hopefully, they can bring them up here again next year."