INDIANAPOLIS — With enrollments of under 200 students each, Grant Park and Milford are two of the smaller schools in the Daily Journal’s 24-school coverage area. But that didn’t stop the two schools from getting together on the bright lights of the NBA hardwood on Thursday.
As part of the Indianapolis Pacers Court of Dreams program, the two schools opened up a day of basketball at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the home of the Pacers, who ended the action-packed day with a game of their own.
Milford principal Steve Totheroh helped spearhead the idea and the involvement, something the school used to do in the past. He said that when talking with coach Dave Caldwell, the idea to get back to Indianapolis resurfaced.
“Dave and I started talking after last basketball season in March 2019 about the 2019-20 season and talking about successes, needs and improvements,” Totheroh said. “We agreed it would be a great experience for our kids and fans to go play in Indianapolis on a pro court.”
The original date the Bearcats had looked at was February 8th. They were set to travel to Grant Park that day and the Pacers were holding Court of Dreams that day ahead of a matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, which made the Dragons a natural fit.
Because the Pacers organization considered the Pelicans and hyped rookie Zion Williamson a “prime” game, annual participants were able to select that date as well, moving the Bearcats and Dragons game to Thursday, before the Pacers hosted the Denver Nuggets, a game the Nuggets won 124-116.
“Most of our kids stayed and watched the NBA game that evening, which is also a real treat,” Totheroh said. “Just being in downtown Indianapolis is a much different atmosphere than in downtown Grant Park or downtown Milford ... Parking in downtown Indianapolis is much different than parking at the local Caeys.”
Grant Park coach Bryce LaMore, who annually takes his Dragons to a Chicago Bulls game after their own season ends, said that any chance his kids have to take in a professional game and spend quality time together is always memorable.
“It was an unreal experience for those guys to play on an NBA floor,” LaMore said. “Even just hanging out in downtown Indianapolis, (senior Dragons player) Clayton McKinstry whooping my butt in the arcade hoops game, it was overall just a great experience for the kids.
“What made it even cooler was that they got to stay and watch the Pacers and Nuggets play.”
Grant Park 55, Milford 50
Before the Dragons explored Indianapolis and watched a Nuggets victory, they had a game to play, which the Dragons’ Andrew Fulk said was their first priority.
“First, it was a business trip,” Fulk said. “We had to go down to Indianapolis and take care of Milford.”
And in a back-and-forth affair that saw each team equally struggle with offensive rhythm as often as they found success with the ball, the Dragons emerged the victors by a 55-50 margin.
“It was an awesome experience out there,” Grant Park’s Clayton McKinstry said. “The lights were really bright and it was really big. The court didn’t seem much bigger though and we just had to pretend like it was our high school gym.”
Despite playing in a gym designed to hold roughly 100 times the size of their schools, with rims that protruded our further than typical high school gyms and a major depth perception adjustment to make, the Dragons came out splashing, sinking three quick 3-pointers on their way to an 11-2 run to open the game.
“With how good of shooters Grant Park has with their range a little further than others, it made us expand our defense, which allowed them to drive and kick out for 3s,” Allen said.
But the Bearcats were able to keep things from getting out of hand, making a big push of their own,a 12-2 surge that gave them a 14-13 lead after a quarter.
“We just came out in awe a little bit,” Caldwell said of the opening scene Thursday. “I thought the kids started playing hard, moving the ball and for a stretch, we made our shots.”
The teams traded leads throughout the second quarter as well, with the Bearcats maintaining a 26-20 lead into the half.
The intensity ramped up in the third and so did McKinstry’s confidence. The Grant Park swingman struggled in the first half, shooting just 1-of-5 from the field, but turned that around in the second half, where he scored 13 of his team-high 16 points.
On consecutive possessions in the middle of the third, McKinstry hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 28, and after a quick Bearcats answer, the Dragons’ junior splashed another triple to make it 31-30 Dragons, one of 10 lead changes on the day.
McKinstry hits this 3 and it’s 31-30 Dragons with 2:15 left in the third. pic.twitter.com/1fa8JndJxO— Mason Schweizer (@MSchweizerTDJS) January 2, 2020
McKinstry said that the busy play of his teammates in the frontcourt allowed him to find more space on the perimeter and get in a rhythm in the third.
“Our bigs moving a lot helped us move. Being in the post sucked (the defense) in and that got us our shots,” McKinstry said. “Towards the end of the game, we were able to drive.”
McKinstry and teammate Troy Reynolds each found some driving lanes in the fourth to help the Dragons offense continue to increase in efficiency as the game went on (the Dragons scored 35 points in the second half after scoring 20 in the first half).
Reynolds and the Dragons appeared to seize all of the momentum and all but wrap up the game when an and-one off of an offensive rebound gave the Dragons their largest lead since the first quarter at 45-38 with just under four minutes to play.
Impressively, Reynolds scored seven points in the second half, all after picking up his fourth foul just a minute and a half into the third quarter.
“You’ve just gotta keep working hard, that’s all that goes through my head,” Reynolds said of staying aggressive through foul trouble. “I’ve got my teammates to back me up, so if I fouled one more time, I trust them.”
Despite falling in a deep hole late, the Bearcats clawed their way back. Allen was true on an and-one to cut the deficit to 49-46 with just under a minute left and followed it up with a 3-pointer to trim the deficit even further to 50-49 with 36 seconds left.
But the Dragons were able to hit their free-throws and force a Bearcats travel in the game’s final seconds to hold their opponents off and leave the home of the Pacers with a victorious feather in their cap.
“It was a surreal, once in a lifetime opportunity that we’ll never be able to do (again),” Reynolds said. “Good thing we came out and got that (win).”
Even though they returned to Milford without a victory of their own, Allen, who also noted he now has more points on an NBA Arena than the much-hyped Williamson, said the day will be a memory he cherishes nonetheless.
“At first it was like, wow okay that was kinda cool, so that’s what it’s like (to play on an NBA court),” Allen said. “Then when I’m up in the stands actually watching the greatest players in the world play on the same court, it hit me how lucky we were to get the opportunity that many many kids don’t get.”