It was an unpredictable finish to an unpredictable season for Taylor men’s basketball last week.
After closing out the regular season strong, the Trojans fought their way into the Crossroads League Tournament. They won three straight conference games to clinch their spot in the tournament, after senior Mason Degenkolb buried his less-famous 3-point dagger against Huntington.
Then, they went on the road to open the tournament against No. 13 Grace. Last month, they lost to Grace by four on the road. This time, thanks to Degenkolb’s full-court shot, they won by three.
“Hitting that shot at Grace was just a surreal moment for me,” Degenkolb said. “Something I’ll be able to remember forever.”
The shot earned them another game, and gave the seniors another chance to play in Odle Arena.
Early in the season, that seemed unfathomable.
“It’s something we’ll never forget,” said senior Ryan Robinson. “The possibility for it to be our last game, and then it gets the national attention it did and it gave us one more chance to play at home. We’ll always be able to look back on it.”
Dan Dakich, who hosts a radio show for ESPN affiliate 1070 the Fan in Indianapolis, called Degenkolb’s shot arguably the best he had ever seen in an interview with the Taylor guard.
Degenkolb was also interviewed live on SportsCenter and his shot earned the honor of the No. 1 play of the night in “Top Ten Plays.”
“He represented our program, department and university so well,” said Head Coach Josh Andrews. “It’s just a really neat story.”
As Andrews would say, there were some big ups and downs this season. They started 1-4 in conference play. They knocked off the No. 4 and No. 11 ranked teams in the nation at home later in the year. They lost multiple heartbreakers down the stretch. Degenkolb then hit that fateful shot. Maybe the season would end on an up and not a down. It seemed it could have been destiny.
Then, they ran into Bethel’s shooting last Saturday.
In a nearly unbelievable shooting performance, Bethel knocked down 16 of their 21 3-point attempts in the second half. A game that was 39-38 in advantage of Taylor at half turned into a 100-64 blowout in favor of Bethel.
At one point in the first half, the Trojans were leading 32-22. They were outscored 78-32 the rest of the way.
“As much as that Grace outcome seemed like destiny, with the way Mason made that shot at the most critical time in the season,” Andrews said. “The second half from Bethel was just as unusual. We were fatigued. I didn’t like our feel coming out of half.”
Andrews said he felt like it was partly the defense and partly Bethel’s shooters just getting into a rhythm.
Either way, a 16-21 shooting performance from deep in a half is not something that usually happens on a basketball court.
“Hats off to Bethel,” Degenkolb said. “I think we let them get a couple clean looks, and then when it rains it pours. They did a great job of just taking and making tough shots.”
Barring a surprise bid to nationals, Robinson and Degenkolb leave as some of the most accomplished hoopers in Taylor history. Degenkolb, a four-year starter, finishes No. 5 all-time in scoring with 1,940 points. Robinson finishes No. 9 all-time with 1,792 points. Degenkolb and Robinson both earned Second-Team All-Crossroads League for their play this season. Sophomore CJ Penha earned Honorable Mention All-Crossroads League, while Jason Hubbard made the First-Team All-Crossroads Defensive team.
Andrews said Degenkolb and Robinson’s growth as leaders, men and then basketball players is what he’ll remember most. Degenkolb and Robinson felt similar.
“The program developed me as a basketball player,” Robinson said. “But most importantly as a man and a Christian man. Coach Andrews spoke practical things and related it to basketball and I’ll always remember the relationships I built.”