BOYS BB: Experienced Peru has broken through to semistate

Mar. 14—When Peru's boys basketball team took the floor at the Berry Bowl last Saturday, the Bengal Tigers were on familiar ground. They'd been there before. Opponents, venues and even the postseason format changed, but the stakes never did.

In 2022 the Bengal Tigers won a sectional title, then lost to Culver Academies in a regional semifinal at South Bend Washington. In 2023 after another sectional title, the regional opponent was Delta and the venue New Castle for a one-game regional. Again the Tigers fell.

Last Saturday was Peru's turn. The Bengals took to Logansport with a core of players who were experienced from the previous two regional disappointments and scored an emphatic win. Trailing 28-26 at halftime, Peru outscored West Lafayette by 18 points in the second half to win 62-46 victory and take the title of a one-game Class 3A Logansport Regional.

"I think we were a little bit more determined to get it done than we have been in the past," Peru forward Alex Ross said. "We all really wanted it."

The Bengals are upper-class heavy now with a core of seniors Ross, Matthew Roettger and Ian Potts, juniors Gavin Eldridge and Zavier Turner and sophomore Reis Bellar. Roettger, Potts, Ross and Eldridge were all starters last season.

"I think the experience has a huge role," Roettger said. "We've all been there. The joke was during the regional week that the third time is a charm. I think that's what really did it — experience is one of the key factors. We all know what it's like to be there and we really wanted it that time."

That victory earned them another week of play and another tough weekend. The Bengals (16-10) square off with No. 13 South Bend St. Joseph (18-9) at 10 a.m. on Saturday, back in the Berry Bowl for the first semifinal of the North Semistate at Logansport. No. 7 Delta (22-6) meets No. 12 Fairfield (20-6) in the second semifinal. The championship is at 8 p.m.

The Bengals survived a tough sectional filled with close games. Peru beat Norwell by three points, Oak Hill by 17 and Mississinewa by four to win the sectional.

"I think buckling down and taking care of the ball is a big thing," Roettger said of what's required to win close games in the postseason. "When you're in that position that you know your career is literally on the line, you do everything in your power to make sure that the other team doesn't score more points than you."

In the regional, Peru trailed at halftime before taking control in the second half.

"I feel like we just never give up," Ross said. "Even if we're down 10 you can't count us out, sometimes even 20. We've come back from that big of a deficit before."

The stress of postseason games is familiar. What's new for the Bengals this season is the lead voice in practice and on the sidelines. Former JV coach Travis Smith took over as coach this season after former coach Eric Thompson left to coach Huntington North.

"I think all the little things stayed the same," Roettger said. "Him and Coach Thompson have really good similarities, but the thing that makes them different is the free roam we have as players. With Coach Trav, it's more free and we are allowed to do what we want and that opens up everything.

"I wouldn't necessarily say one-on-one ball, but there's a lot more open space other than going to the same set, same open concept. I think that's really opened up the floor, given us room to drive, given us room to shoot, given us room to pass. It suits our game more than it has been."

Roettger leads the Tigers at 18.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Eldridge averages 13.5 points and 5.2 assists. Ross averages 11.8 points and 7 rebounds. Turner adds 8.5 points and Potts 6.5.

"I feel like our offense has changed a little bit," Ross said. "We're a little bit spread out and it lets us run the floor, but the defense has stayed the same. We don't switch as much ... but we still switch when we have to."

"I feel like we have more of a chance for everyone to score than the past offense with Thompson. Everyone on the floor is capable to score so that's a good thing that everyone has the same opportunity to."

The Bengals are on a four-game winning streak, their longest streak of the year. After spending most of the season hovering a game or two over .500, Peru is clicking.

"I think later on in the year, we came together as a team on defense, really buckled down a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year," Ross said.

Peru has held its four postseason opponents to an average of 46 points while its season defensive average is 57.7.

"I think that everyone bought in," Roettger said. "We weren't really sold earlier this season. We had spurts that we showed we were a great team, but we didn't really show it the entire season. But during the end, during the stretch, I think we pulled together."

The community has pulled together in support. The Bengals had a robust crowd at the Berry Bowl last week for the regional and the players expect another enthusiastic turnout Saturday.

"It was electric," Roettger said. "It seemed like the whole city of Peru was there. I really am super grateful for the city of Peru and what they brought, and I can't wait to see what they bring Saturday."

It's an exciting time.

"It feels good to still be playing," Ross said. "It's probably the last chance I'll play competitively and I'm just glad we're here and get another shot at it."