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INDIANAPOLIS — As soon as a they walked through the Gainbridge Fieldhouse tunnel on Friday, the eyes on Mishawaka Marian's boys basketball players widened and wandered.
They gazed up at the endless rows of empty seats and a slew of banners dangling from the high ceiling of a 20,000-seat capacity NBA arena.
It was the calm before Saturday's coming storm, where the No. 2 Knights were to play for one of the most hallowed Indiana accomplishments: A boys basketball state championship. Their awaiting 3A opponent was unranked Beech Grove.
"Oh my god," said junior guard Jackson Price in the moment. "This is so sick."
Whether these players had been here before or not for an Indiana Pacers or college basketball game, Saturday would mark their first time participating in an Indiana High School Athletic Association state title game.
Win or lose, it would serve as a culmination of both a historic season and, in broader strokes, a lifetime of drive, focus and determination.
This was bus rides into the underbelly of a massive stadium. It was downtown hotels and team meals at the prestigious Columbia Club.
It was dressing in professional locker rooms, wondering if LeBron James had once sat in their same seat.
It was playing underneath a massive Jumbotron that would show the story of their game in real time above them.
It was padded bench chairs.
"Are they cushy?" Marian head coach Robb Berger asked after practice.
"You won't want to stand up," Marian athletic director Steve Ravotto responded.
This was the big stage, under the bright lights in the big city.
After years of great teams and a few near misses, the Knights finally made it and were enjoying every moment.
This was supposed to be the storybook weekend with the perfect ending to a dream season.
But not all stories end that way.
'Play with that intensity and we will be state champions'
Berger, who has led Marian to 264 wins in 15 seasons, spent the majority of the week relaying variations of the same message: This is just another game.
He could say it all he wanted, but this week was different.
The Knights spent the week practicing at Bethel University in Mishawaka because previously planned spirit week activities took control of their home gym.
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"All the 3-pointers were off because the line was farther back," junior forward Grant Mishler said. "The court was a bit larger, too. But I think we will be in good shape."
This was the first time since the beginning of the season — in which Marian won a share of the Northern Indiana Conference title, its first regional since 2012 and first ever semistate — that it had five consecutive days of practice without a game in between.
It was also the first time the team sauntered through school hallways led by the Marian drumline as their peers clapped in celebration.
There was also a police escort out of town on Friday, as well.
Still, Berger had his team prepare as if it had been through this before.
The Knights hustled through one shooting drill to the next. Then into offensive sets before working defensively on what Beech Grove might run against them.
They watched film of Beech Grove's semistate win over Sullivan, taking note of the Hornets' sharp-shooting point guard Jeremiah Alexander and 6-foot-6, 200-pound inside force Anthony Ball.
Marian held a team Mass before Thursday's practice. Led by junior point guard Deaglan Sullivan, the Knights dedicated a prayer to Nolan Gerwels, a childhood friend to some who died at 14 years old when an indoor basketball backboard fell on him in June 2018.
Throughout the week, the Knights' vigor was consistent each practice, leaving many players dripping in sweat in the early minutes.
"We need three more practices like that," Berger said Tuesday.
"Play with that intensity," he barked Wednesday, "and we are going to be state champions!"
"We want to push the tempo," Berger added Thursday.
During Thursday's team dinner, Marian discussed playing in an NBA gym for the first time. Many had experienced college arenas in AAU basketball, but this was going to be special.
Players coordinated who was bringing PlayStations and Xboxes and who was bringing what games — Fortnite and NBA 2K being the top choices.
Then Friday's unveiling moment came.
The practice at Gainbridge was for about an hour. Just like the rest of the week, Marian went through routine shooting drills with speed and conviction. After all, this was what it was here for.
Getting used to the rims, finding a rhythm. Marian looked comfortable. Deaglan Sullivan was driving hard to the basket. Richard Brooks was making deep 3-pointers.
In the final five minutes, the fun resumed with a dunk contest. Dar'e'on Thornton, Kaleo Kakalia and Brooks were each able to throw one down. That's a memory that will last a lifetime.
"I never thought," Thornton admitted, "that I would be dunking on an NBA court."
'No place I would rather be'
With a Saturday tip time of 6 p.m., days like this drenched with so much anticipation, can drag on. The Knights kept busy.
After a team breakfast filled with eggs, bacon, muffins and fruit, the team had a shootaround at the Indianapolis Athletic Club.
About that time, the Class 1A title game between Lafayette Catholic Central and New Daviess was in double overtime. Updated on that score (North Daviess would win), Berger emphasized to his team the importance of making free throws. Would that matter come game time?
After the shootaround, there were still a couple hours to kill before heading to Gainbridge. Now back at the hotel, some guys slipped in a nap while others played video games to relax until the team met in the lobby for a prayer before its short commute.
Game time was closing in.
The bus ride was fairly quiet as it rolled up Meridian Street until it rolled past the Slippery Noodle, a downtown bar where a Beech Grove fan party was commencing. Dozens of people clad in orange ran outside to yell at Marian's bus.
If it didn't feel like game time yet, it certainly did now.
"Certainly got the adrenaline going," assistant coach Shawn Sullivan said.
When players walked into the locker room, they saw their white home jerseys hanging in the cubbies, freshly stitched State Finals patches on the front.
This was their moment.
Outside of the locker room, Berger was having his. He stood at the tunnel entrance, watching thousands of seats begin to fill, one half of the arena in Beech Grove orange and black, the other in deep Marian blue and bright white.
This was a coach's dream. This was Marian's dream.
"There is no place," a Marian player uttered shortly before warmups, "I would rather be."
"This is unbelievable," Berger added for his final message. "Whatever you have, leave it on the court. The score will take care of itself."
— Michael Wanbaugh (@mwanbaugh) March 26, 2022
Marian's first half was far from perfect with 11 uncharacteristic turnovers and early foul trouble. Yet, the Knights held a 22-20 halftime lead.
Inside the locker room, that gave them confidence.
"In reality you are 16 minutes from a championship," Berger said. "Make this the best 16 minutes of the year right here."
'I couldn't be more proud'
The second half did not go as scripted for Marian.
Saturday's game went from a determined dream to a harsh reality for the Knights, who were outscored 17-6 in the final five minutes of a 53-43 loss.
It was Beech Grove climbing ladders at the end and cutting down nets.
The Hornets' Anthony Ball, Marian's top defensive priority throughout the week, proved unstoppable while scoring a game-high 17 points while adding 20 rebounds.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Berger turned to his bench and said, "We can't guard him."
Emotions poured onto the court at the final buzzer.
Brooks, who scored a team-high 13 points, took a seat around the free-throw line with a look of exhaustion and disappointment. Thornton fell to one knee nearby, tears flowing as teammates surrounded him.
Upon return, Marian's locker room is dead silent until Thornton sat down, his sobs continuing.
Across the room, Price began to cry, too, amid blank stares. Brooks held his head in his hands, wondering what he could have done differently.
Shortly after, Berger walked in. He shook hands with each player, thanked them for a remarkable season and offered one last message.
"I couldn't be more proud."
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Mishawaka Marian plays in Indiana state championship basketball game