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Spartans 'ready to take down anyone' as sectional final approaches

Mar. 1—ST. JOSEPH — There was a timeout on the floor, and senior point guard Logan Smith was the first to speak up in the huddle. He turned to fellow senior Luke Landrus and said, "You need to keep being aggressive."

The Spartans were in the middle of a back-and-forth battle with Flora in Tuesday night's Class 2A Shelbyville sectional semifinal, and Landrus was getting anything he wanted offensively, consistently blowing by his defender and getting two points at the rim.

"Every guy was nodding their head like, 'This is Luke's time. He's got to take over this game. He's got the matchup we like, so we need to keep going to him,'" SJ-O coach Kiel Duval described of that timeout.

They kept going to him, and he finished the night with a game-high 22 points to lead the Spartans to a 50-40 win against the Wolves and a spot in Friday's 7 p.m. sectional championship against Teutopolis (23-10) in Shelbyville.

SJ-O (27-6) has won a regional title each of the last three seasons, but this is the first time of the three it's been able to make it to the Sweet 16. That moment in the huddle Tuesday night perfectly summed up why this year's group was the one to get over the hump.

It showed how comfortable the players are with one another. They knew their best chance to win was to keep giving the ball to Landrus. Rather than get discouraged that it wasn't them, all his teammates took the team approach without question.

"Every single practice, we basically have to kick them out of the gym," Duval said. "We get done with practice, and they hang out just to be around each other for an extra 30-40 minutes. Sometimes, they're getting extra shots, and sometimes, they're just talking. It's really cool to see. That's what shows on the floor is they're so together, and I think that's why they've had the success they've had. We talk about being connected on the floor all the time, and that's what this group is."

That team chemistry is especially key at this point in the season. SJ-O is one of just 16 teams remaining in all of Class 2A, and it got there by relying largely on its starting five.

Three of the Spartans' starters played the entire game Tuesday, and the other two played all but just a few minutes.

"Once you get down to this point, you've got to have your horses on the floor, the guys who are locked in to all the details and you know are going to get the job done," Duval said. "It's not like we don't have faith in our bench, but the group we had out there was playing so well that it was hard to take them out."

SJ-O's student section, the Maroon Platoon, showed out Tuesday, ultimately outcheering Flora's crowd, which was about three times as big.

"It's a great feeling," Smith said of seeing the Spartan crowd. "They support us no matter how far it is. I'm just hoping we get a bigger crowd on Friday."

And if SJ-O athletic director Justin Franzen has anything to say about it, there will be.

Franzen has been advertising the championship game all over social media, and he even reached out to The News-Gazette to help get the word out.

"We want to try to get as many people as we can to this game to support our team," Franzen said.

It'll be tough to match Teutopolis' crowd. The Wooden Shoes' student section took up half of the lower level on one side of Shelbyville's gym for Wednesday's second semifinal game against Unity, and the sea of navy and gold made Flora's crowd pale in comparison.

Teutopolis will also be a tough team to beat on the court.

Duval said he's expecting a physical battle — Unity star senior Henry Thomas called Wednesday's game against the Wooden Shoes the most physical high school game he's ever played. The Spartans won't have any easy drives to the basket or much space to breathe on the perimeter, which makes every possession matter that much more. Duval also noted Teutopolis' size and shooting ability, meaning the Spartans will have to find more ways to rebound and contest everything on defense.

Teutopolis won an early January matchup with SJ-O, a 53-40 victory on Jan. 9 on the Wooden Shoes' home floor. The Spartans are 13-2 since that loss. The two teams are vying for a berth in Monday night's Carbondale Super-Sectional. It would be SJ-O's first sectional title since the Spartans won it all in 2016.

It may not be against Unity — the Spartans bested their rival Rockets 73-72 in overtime Feb. 9 in the area's game of the year — but it doesn't make the potential to claim more IHSA hardware on Friday night mean any less.

SJ-O is prepared for whatever comes its way.

"We're ready for anyone who comes in our path. That's just our mindset," Smith said. "Obviously, Unity is our rival, so that would have been a really big game. But we're ready to take down anyone who comes in our path."