Madison County’s last two boys basketball teams standing don’t share much in common.
Liberty Christian likes to run the floor, averages more than 70 points per game and is likely to thrill the home crowd at least once per night with a highlight-reel dunk or ally-oop.
Pendleton Heights moves at a more methodical pace, allows just more than 43 points per game and is happiest when its closing out games at the free-throw line.
But the teams do share one important thing in common: They’ve figured out how to win when it counts.
Liberty Christian (19-5) is playing in a regional for the second straight season after eight years of IHSAA membership without a sectional crown. Just two years ago the Lions lost 16 games, and they allowed roughly 70 points per contest in each of the previous two seasons.
But this year, led by the area’s most underrated player in sophomore point guard Chris Nunn, Liberty Christian has cut more than 11 points off its defensive average and played well under the weight of expectations for the first time.
The Lions’ 19 victories already are a record for the school’s IHSAA era, and the team still is young enough to suggest the best might be yet to come.
This season at Pendleton Heights, on the other hand, was all about proving it already has staying power.
The Arabians (15-9) lost four starters from last year’s 23-3 team and were left for dead by some after a 1-3 start. Rallying around the same defensive principles its held for years under head coach Brian Hahn, however, Pendleton Heights improved with each game.
The team stunned North Central in the regular-season finale, then survived a double-overtime thriller against underdog Connersville in the sectional opener. A pair of impressive victories over North Central Conference stalwarts Richmond and New Castle then provided the team with momentum into the regional round.
The Arabians will lose three more starters — seniors Brogan Gary, Kurt Talbert and Peyton McCardwell — from this year’s team. And, yet, the program appears to be in good hands.
It was easy to see the Lions coming. They started the season ranked No. 10 in Class A and received votes in the poll for most of the year.
Even with a gigantic target on its back after last year’s historic sectional title, Liberty Christian outlasted Southern Wells 83-79 in overtime to repeat as tournament champs.
The immediate road ahead is tough. The Lions first face a rematch against Union (Modoc)(17-5), whom they defeated 75-64 on Dec. 18, and then likely would face top-ranked Rockville (25-0) in a reprise of last year’s regional title game.
Pendleton Heights has a date with Cathedral (22-5), which started the year atop the 4A polls, and defending state runner-up Pike (22-3) sits on the other side of the regional bracket.
Liberty Christian was expected to reach this point for months. The Arabians were not.
So why should either team care what’s expected of it now?
That’s the beauty of March.