SPEEDWAY — Emiley Carlton, Kaysi Gilbert and Morgan Collins still pick on Peyton West — and vice versa. But that’s what happens when you’ve known each other the majority of your life.
The four Eastern Hancock seniors first began playing basketball together approximately 10 years ago in the third grade. Then came Leah Ferguson, who joined the talented group of youngsters two years before high school.
“We tease each other, and it has been that way ever since we were little kids,” West said. “After a tournament, we got ice cream. I got a little, tiny one, and they all got big ones. And they still make fun of me to this day for it.”
Since then, their connection on and off the court has been undeniable. However, after a promising run, their careers came to an end Saturday in the Speedway Regional title game against Covenant Christian.
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Carlton finished with a team-high 16 points and six rebounds, while West led the Royals with nine rebounds in a 52-44 loss. Gilbert scored four points and grabbed three rebounds after finishing with eight points and five rebounds in a 54-42 win over South Putnam earlier in the afternoon.
Collins and Ferguson were both sidelined this season with medical issues, but a sophomore and junior helped fill the voids — especially on Saturday.
Junior Bailey Allen scored 15 points in the loss to Covenant Christian and was a steady scoring option in addition to Carlton and sophomore Haley Best this season. Allen made three 3-pointers in the regional championship, while Best finished with 11 points in the first game against the Eagles.
But for the seniors, it marked the end of a long, successful road. The Royals made it farther than any team in school history and, with the win over No. 1 Triton Central last weekend, claimed their first sectional title in 16 years.
“It was a good game, but we didn’t play as a team,” Gilbert said of the regional championship. “We kind of went back to the old team we were at the beginning of the season. Covenant Christian is a really good team, and we did put up a fight.”
Burying itself in a seven-point hole after halftime against the Warriors, Eastern Hancock used a 10-0 run to take a 30-29 lead with more than a minute to play in the third quarter.
After the burst however, the Royals appeared to run out of gas and were outscored 23-14 the rest of the game. Eastern Hancock trailed by one point at halftime but could not overcome a cold-shooting night (33 percent) and costly turnovers.
“I can’t really pinpoint what (Covenant Christian) was doing well,” Carlton said. “Sometimes they would be really good on offense, and then they would miss some shots. Then, they would do a really good job of reading our passes.
“It’s going to be different not having practice with them (fellow seniors) every day. We had a nice connection on the court, and I am definitely going to miss that with my best friends.”
Added first-year Eastern Hancock head coach Andy Meneely: “We got some good looks, but the rims weren’t very nice for us. (Covenant Christian) hit some tough shots, too. In the second and third quarters, they were able to control the tempo a little bit more.”
In the first game, the Royals led 32-24 at the end of the third quarter and held on for a convincing win, led by Carlton’s 16 points and 10 rebounds. Eastern Hancock held South Putnam’s leading scorer to no field goals through 23 minutes of play and forced the Eagles into 19 turnovers. Five Royals scored six or more points.
“Like I saw on film, they share the ball extremely well,” South Putnam head coach Brian Gardner said of Eastern Hancock, which finished its season with a 15-11 record. “They made the plays down the stretch to win.”
For Carlton and Gilbert, the pair has been close friends for as long as they can remember. Their parents played softball together before the two were even born. It’s been the same for West and Collins, who have known each other since they were 1 year old.
And back in their elementary days playing in the Little Cougars League at Greenfield-Central, it was evident that their class could be special.
“We all worked together as kids and showed so much talent,” West said. “Yeah, we were goofy on the court, but we were also very mature. I think that’s what gave people the clarity that we were going to be good when we were older.”
As for next season, Allen and Best, despite receiving valuable playing time in the postseason, will lead a rather inexperienced group of players in search of a second consecutive sectional title.
Best was second on the team in scoring this season (9.7 points per game) behind Carlton and led the Royals in made 3-point field goals. Allen averaged 6.0 points and 2.2 assists.
Sophomore Jenna Smith, junior Liberty Durham and freshman Lexi Lewman also played key minutes and will be expected to produce in a larger role next year.
For Meneely, though, especially as a first-year head coach, he will greatly miss this year’s senior class.
“The athleticism (the seniors) added to the program was huge,” he said. “We could rely on Emiley game in and game out. Kaysi gave us spots when we were struggling and was able to do some things defensively. And Peyton was flat-out my most consistent kid all year. We knew what we were going to get out of her.
“Being able to have those kids at the core for us was a really good thing this year.”
Eastern Hancock 54, South Putnam 42
EASTERN HANCOCK (15-10) — Carlton 5 6-8 16, Best 3 3-5 11, West 0 0-0 0 , Gilbert 3 2-4 8, Durham 4 1-4 9, Allen 1 0-0 2, Smith 3 0-0 6, Lewman 1 0-0 2, Webster 0 0-0 0. Totals: 20 12-23 54.
SOUTH PUTNAM (15-11) — Bieghler 2 9-12 13, Stein 4 1-2 9, Barker 1 0-0 2, Vensko 0 0-1 0, Capps 3 2-2 9, Vanihel 3 0-0 8, Nichols 0 0-2 0, Whitney 0 0-0 0. Totals: 13 12-19 42.
3-Pointers: EH 2 (Best 2), SP 3 (Vanihel, Capps, Stein). Rebounds: EH 39 (Carlton 10, Best, West 3, Gilbert 5, Durham 7, Allen 3, Smith 6, Lewman, Webster, Team 2), SP 35 (Beighler 7, Stein 3, Barker, Vensko, Capps 6, Vanihel 7, Whitney, Team 8). Turnovers: EH 14, SP 19. Fouls: EH 16, SP 19.
Eastern Hancock 44, Covenant Christian 52
EASTERN HANCOCK (15-11) – Carlton 7 1-4 16, West 1 0-0 2, Best 1 0-0 3, Gilbert 1 1-2 4, Durham 1 0-0 2, Allen 4 4-6 15, Smith 1 0-0 2, Webster 0 0-0 0, Lewman 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 6-12 44.
COVENANT CHRISTIAN (16-9) — Everett 4 0-0 10, Halderman 1 3-6 5, Schrad 4 0-0 9, Cleary 0 6-10 6, Cooper 4 4-7 12, Ryals 4 1-1 10, Anderson 0 0-0 0, Borom 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 14-24 52.
Rebounds: EH 34 (Carlton 6, West 9, Best 2, Gilbert 3, Durham 2, Allen 4, Smith 2, Lewman 2, Team 4), CC 37 (Everett 2, Halderman 9, Schrad 4, Cleary 4, Cooper 10, Anderson 2, Team 6). 3-Pointers: EH 6 (Allen 3, Gilbert, Carlton, Best), CC 4 (Everett 2, Schrad, Ryals). Turnovers: EH 14, CC 14. Fouls: EH 17, CC 9.