Mar. 7—MIDDLETOWN — Although he is in his second season with the program, prior to Saturday night, Shenandoah senior Michael Howard had not known the feeling of playing on a sectional championship team while teammate Andrew Bennett had never known the feeling of losing in a sectional game during his four-year career.
The two keyed a scoring run that seized the momentum for the Raiders in the second and third quarters, Shenandoah flexed its defensive muscle once again and rolled past Eastern Hancock 61-38 for the program's fifth straight sectional championship.
It was also win No. 600 for coach Dave McCollough in his 37th season — the last six with the Raiders — making him one of five active coaches to eclipse the mark and the 16th to reach it all time in the state.
"In order for that to happen, you have to have good kids and kids that can play, and I've been very fortunate to have great assistant coaches to put in the time," McCollough said. "It doesn't seem like it's been 37 years, but I guess it has. It's worked out pretty well."
For the second time in as many nights, Shenandoah's defense shut down a dangerous offense to key the victory. After holding 10th-ranked Northeastern to 39 points Friday, the Raiders turned around and held the Royals — who made 12 3-point baskets Friday night — to just 38 points and four made 3-point shots.
"Defense is first. That's the first priority," Howard said. "I still think there are things we can work on going forward."
Shenandoah (24-3) allowed an average of 33 points in three sectional wins this week.
But Eastern Hancock (19-6) would not go away, particularly in the first half.
Bennett hit a 3-point basket for a 19-10 lead early in the second quarter, but the Royals answered with eight straight points and, on a 3-point shot by Jacob Spaulding, cut Shenandoah's lead to 19-18.
The Raiders responded with eight unanswered of their own to close the half, with a Bennett trey at the horn sending his team into the locker room with a nine-point lead and newfound momentum.
"I think anytime you hit a shot like that, it's huge," McCollough said. "In a close game, or if you're trying to gap someone, to hit a 3 to build the lead or to take the lead ... plays like that can be huge, for you or against you."
Howard kept the run and the momentum going with a layup on the first possession of the second half and followed with a 3-point basket. Moments later, Kaden McCollough buried a three with his heels on the "S" at center court, and the Raiders lead ballooned to 35-18. The Royals never got closer than 14 points the rest of the way.
After transferring from Hagerstown following his sophomore campaign, Howard was relegated to junior varsity duty last year. Being able to contribute on the court this time around — he scored nine points and had seven rebounds Saturday — made his first championship a special one.
"It hurt watching last year, but this kind of made it worth it," Howard said. "Hopefully, we have four more to cap off the season. It was great playing in front of the crowd. They were into it, and the student section was awesome. It was a special environment."
Bennett led all players with 17 points and five assists in the championship game, his fourth in as many years. Winning this sectional while playing his final game in front of the home fans made it special.
"It made it sweet to win it here," he said. "It means a lot to all of us ... to win at home for our last game, it means more than usual."
Jakeb Kinsey and Kaden McCollough scored 12 points each for the Raiders while Kameron Graddy added seven points and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
Silas Spaulding led the Royals with 11 points, and Landon O'Neal added 10, including his 1,000th on a pair of fourth-quarter free throws.
The Raiders will face ninth-ranked Covenant Christian (22-4) Saturday at Greenfield-Central after the Warriors knocked off Heritage Christian in a 71-68 triple-overtime thriller.
"It's a really good matchup. They're really solid," Coach McCollough said. "They play a good schedule. They play well together. I think they're going to bring a brand of physicality to the game, but I think we do that, too."
Shenandoah will play the second game at approximately noon following the first regional semifinal between Parke Heritage (24-3) and Triton Central (13-8).
Contact Rob Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 765-640-4886.