PENDLETON — The reigning boys basketball Madison County champions didn't feel they were receiving much respect this season.
So they went out the past two days and earned some.
With a 64-50 victory against Liberty Christian (6-3) in the semifinals at Pendleton Heights on Saturday afternoon, Anderson will play in the county title game for the fifth consecutive season on Monday night. And the Indians (5-5) will be looking to claim the crown for the second straight year and the third time since 2008.
"It feels good, real good," said senior Kenya Wilkerson, after posting 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Lions. "I'm really happy for our young guys. They're doing a great job now, and they're really starting to step up. People were doubting us. We just want to show we can do it again."
The Tribe made a convincing opening argument with decisive victories against Pendleton Heights and Liberty Christian in consecutive days. The games started some 19 hours apart, and Anderson won them by a combined total of 27 points.
That represents a big step for a team that had struggled with its consistency this season.
As Wilkerson mentioned, some of the younger players have led the way.
Sophomore Kobe Clay matched Wilkerson's double-double with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Sophomore Thomas Wells had eight points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, and junior Fresan Reese also scored eight points with a team-high four assists. Tribe coach Joe Nadaline, however, was most impressed with his point guard's zero turnovers in nearly 24 minutes of floor time.
Senior Grant Bennett had 10 points as the third Indian in double figures, following up a team-high 20-point effort against Pendleton Heights on Friday night.
When the Tribe tips off in the championship game against Lapel at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, there could be a completely different leader.
"And I don't care who it is, as long as it's somebody," Nadaline said. "We're not a team with a dominant player. We need a good effort from a lot of different players every night, and this was a nice team win today."
Even if it lacked the aesthetic appeal of the opening-round victory against the Arabians.
Underdog Liberty Christian took the fight to the Indians early, opening a 22-17 lead in the second quarter and threatening to pull away.
But Anderson responded with a 16-2 run bridging the intermission and never looked back.
Appropriately several Indians played a part in the spurt that began on defense and was capped by a 3-pointer from Reese that made it 33-24 with 6:32 to play in the third quarter. The Lions were seldom within single digits from that point forward.
"The issue was the second quarter, we just panicked," Liberty Christian coach Jason Chappell said. "We quit playing our game. It was self-imposed pressure. But it's good. I'd rather it happen now than in March."
The Lions have won back-to-back sectional championships and advanced to the Class A regional final in each season. They won't see any team as quick as Anderson in the postseason, and that's just one of the reasons Chappell looks forward to playing in these county games.
Liberty Christian will play in the third-place game Monday at Anderson High School for the second consecutive season. The Lions beat Elwood 82-59 last season for their highest finish in tournament history.
"To me, it's a ballgame," Chappell said. "Every ballgame is an opportunity for us to get better. We've been talking to the team about the process and not to look at the scoreboard. Trust the process and just focus on improving every game."
On the other side of the court, Anderson has taken that philosophy to heart.
Despite a cold shooting night — the Indians were just 2-for-13 from beyond the 3-point arc and 16-for-27 at the free-throw line — the Tribe found the grit to win.
That came largely from a stifling defense that allowed just one Lion to score in double figures — senior Preston Quinn with 11 points — and forced 17 turnovers. Bennett and Wells led the way with three steals each, and Wilkerson and Greg Dixon each had two.
Nadaline's not concerned with how the victories come or what the final margin might be. Just as will be the case when the postseason begins in March, the objective now is simply to survive and advance.
"We finally got going to start the second half, and we started playing the way we needed to play," Nadaline said. "Ultimately, it's about winning. I've got no grand illusions about what the score is or what it should be. All we were worried about was playing on Monday night in the second game."