MADISON — It wasn’t that Darlington hadn’t seen a 1-3-1 zone like Cameron’s this year.
It hadn’t seen a 1-3-1 zone period.
Nevertheless, the unbeaten Redbirds were able to do something few teams had this year and solve it. Taking advantage of the extra length of the college court and reversing the ball crisply, unbeaten Darlington stayed that way by knocking off Cameron 63-52 in the WIAA Division 4 boys basketball state semifinals Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
“We were a step slow tonight,” Cameron coach Troy LaVallie said. “But that’s a credit to Darlington. They’re a very fast, athletic team. We just weren’t able to control them on the defensive end.”
After forcing 19 turnovers in the sectional final win over Stanley-Boyd, the Comets (23-4) were able to force only eight against a disciplined group of Redbirds on Thursday. Darlington knocked down eight 3-pointers and had three scorers in double figures, led by Trevor Johnson with 20 points.
Victor Martinez scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead Cameron, last year’s state runner-up. Gunner Wilder added 13 points. Wilder was as tired as anyone after the game. Not only did Cameron’s all-conference junior point guard and leading scorer have to run the baseline of the 1-3-1 against a team swinging the ball constantly, but on offense he was face guarded on nearly every possession. Nothing he got came easy.
“It was extremely exhausting,” Wilder said. “I was just trying to move off of screens guys were setting for me and run all over the place on offense, trying to get open. On defense, they’re a very good, disciplined team. They were swinging the ball back and forth. Me having to run baseline to baseline, it was very exhausting.”
Ryan Glendenning scored 17 points and Will Schwartz added 14 for Darlington, which advanced to face Destiny in Saturday’s state championship game. The Redbirds (27-0) clearly made good use of their four days of preparation. Taking advantage of what coach Tom Uppena called the “large lads on our coaching staff,” Darlington tried its best to simulate the 1-3-1 and attacked it like a team that had seen it all year rather than a team facing it for the first time.
Glendenning keyed a hot start, allowing the Redbirds to play with a lead most of the game. Eventually that forced Cameron out of the 1-3-1 and into man, which LaVallie estimated they’d played for about 5 or 10 minutes all season.
“You have to be aggressive against it,” Uppena said. “If you’re going to sit back and lob the ball over the top, they’re eventually going to start picking it off. We needed to be aggressive and kind of take it to them.”
The Redbirds mixed their offensive looks, sometimes going 2-1-2 against the zone and other times running a five-out look. They also took advantage of the extra 5 feet on the college court. With more distance between the top of the key and the midcourt line, Jakob Bailey couldn’t extend as much as he usually does at the point of the zone. Neither could the wings without opening bigger gaps for the balanced, skilled and athletic Redbirds.
On the other end of the court, Darlington hounded Cameron. The Comets shot 39.5 percent. And while they in general liked the looks they got, they missed 12 consecutive shots at one point in the first half.
“Their ball pressure was very good,” Wilder said. “Their defense overall was something I don’t think we’ve seen before. It was very disciplined. Their help defense was amazing.”
That ended another memorable season for the Comets. Prior to last year, Cameron had never been to the state tournament. Now the Comets have made two. They have a silver ball in the trophy case and have ended two consecutive seasons at the Kohl Center.
“It’s unbelievable,” LaVallie said. “After last year’s run, I think our numbers in our youth program were up about 250 percent. We had extra teams at every level. Every kid wanted to be like these guys. Superstars.”