SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Robinson’s runner-up finish in the IHSA single-class tournament in 1916 is the school’s best boys basketball finish.
But the Maroons are back in the Final Four for the first time in 94 years after coach Bob Coffman’s team dismantled Decatur St. Teresa in the second half Tuesday, outscoring the Bulldogs 50-24 in the final 16 minutes. Robinson’s 2002 team led by Tyson Schnitker and Nick Brooks went to state, losing in a Class A Elite Eight matchup to Tolono.
“It was just a really special night for our program to get that win and get a berth to the Final Four,” Coffman said Wednesday afternoon as the Maroons prepared for one practice at home before leaving for Peoria today.
Robinson trailed 33-31 at halftime to St. Teresa, which had won 29 straight games prior to the Class 2A Springfield Super-sectional in the University of Illinois-Springfield Recreation and Athletic Center.
With some high-flying dunks and blocked shots, Robinson’s 7-foot senior Meyers Leonard put on a show in a gym packed to the rafters.
The center was at capacity of 2,600 and more fans had to be turned away. Some of those without a ticket peaked in through the glass panes from the lobby to watch.
Those fans also saw senior Ben Jones, who has scored more than 1,600 points in his career, carry lead his team to the state finals and a matchup with No. 1 Chicago Hales Franciscan (28-2).
Jones had 20 of his game-high 29 points in the second half and he averages a team-high 20.4, including a season-high 35.
“It’s our senior year, so it’s our last chance,” said Jones, a powerful 6-foot guard with a great mid-range game who’s mostly drawing junior college recruiting interest so far.
Jones took advantage of St. Teresa’s aggressive defense and drove to the basket for multiple and-1s.
“He’s definitely one of the strongest, if not the strongest guy on the team,” Coffman said. “It just shows the dedication he’s had.”
Leonard, who will play in Champaign’s Assembly Hall next year for coach Bruce Weber, hopes to lead his team to more postseason glory Friday and Saturday in Carver Arena in Peoria.
“One of my main goals before I get out of high school was to win a state championship, and that’s what my mind’s focused on right now,” Leonard said. “I think we will [win]. If we execute our gameplan, play hard and play as a team. From top to bottom, we’re solid. I just think we have to go to our normal gameplan.”
Leonard is not your typical 7-footer. He has an array of skills and is quick and athletic. He was only 6-2 as a freshman at Robinson, Coffman said, and grew several inches each year to reach his current size.
“It goes back to when he was in middle school and a freshman,” said Coffman, a seventh-year head coach for the Maroons. “He was more of a forward, still had to develop his guard skills. As he continued to grow, those skills continued to develop. He’s not your typical back to basket type of big man. He’s able to put ball on the floor, passes the ball well, very athletic, sees the floor well.”
Leonard has teammates beyond Jones he can turn to. Derek Hannahs averages 13 points and finished with 19 Tuesday. The son of former Indiana State baseball All-American Mitch Hannahs took advantage of open lanes to the goal several times against St. Teresa, also chipping in a team-best four assists.
Hannahs said Robinson’s tough schedule early in the season helped prepare them for this run in the state tournament. The Maroons suffered losses to Rock Island, the sixth-ranked team in Class 3A, and to Chicago Morgan Park, the fifth-ranked team in Class 4A. Hannahs and Jones led the Maroons with 20 points each against Morgan Park.
“That’s helped us a lot,” Hannahs said. “We’re not surprised by many teams’ quickness. We came out a little slow this game, but we got it going.”
Leonard faced physical defense from St. Teresa big man Nick Sanford, an athletic 6-4 senior who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds.
“Early on, he really was getting [physical play], and I don’t think he was prepared for it,” Coffman said of the physical play Leonard has faced. “He’s going into games now saying ‘I’m going to get knocked down, I’m going to get double-teamed, I’m going to get pushed and shoved, I just have to deal with it.’”
Leonard is an equalizer on the defensive end as well, and it showed in the second half Tuesday.
“Any mismatches we do have, are made up for Leonard down low, and his ability to block shots,” Coffman said. “I told the guys at halftime, we’re playing on our heels too much. We have to get more aggressive with our defense and get in the passing lanes, that aggressiveness sparked our offense.”
The state’s No. 1 team is also led by a Division I recruit. Hales Franciscan guard Patrick Miller averages 22.7 points and 3.6 assists is heading to Tennessee State. Five-foot-10 guard Jamie Adams also scores in double figures. Junior brothers Aaron and Aaric Armstead are also receiving a lot of interest from recruiters, and 6-4 junior Dominique Walls leads the Spartans in rebounding.
“They’re a very, very good team. They’re very athletic. They’re long, very aggressive with ball penetration,” Coffman said.