Harrisburg’s Jacob Rudkin remembers the days when he was a kid, watching the Bulldogs win district titles and state championships from the stands.
In his senior season, now Rudkin has found himself leading Harrisburg to a district championship appearance. He scored a game-high 15 points Thursday to give top-seeded Harrisburg a 69-62 win over New Franklin in the Class 2 District 7 tournament semifinals.
“It feels great to be back in the championship,” Rudkin said.
Harrisburg advances to its first district championship game appearance since 2009, the year the Bulldogs finished second in the state. And no one may have been more excited than Harrisburg head coach Steve Combs.
The Bulldogs, after winning a rematch against New Franklin, get a chance to win another rematch in the title game. Harrisburg, the No. 1 seed, will face No. 2 Tolton at 2:45 p.m. Saturday. Harrisburg won the regular-season meeting 61-59 in Columbia back in January.
“I’m excited to be there and we’re excited to have a chance to win a district championship,” Combs said. “Tolton’s going to come after us. They’re a great ballclub.”
In Thursday’s game, New Franklin came out on fire and had a double-digit lead less than three minutes into the game. Jerrod Riley had Harrisburg fans scrambling to find their programs to look up a name to match his No. 13 jersey. The New Franklin sophomore hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first 1:40 to give New Franklin (14-13, 6-6 CAC) a 9-2 lead. The Bulldogs’ biggest lead was 13-2.
“Jerrod did a good job and our guards did a good job of finding him when he was open,” New Franklin head coach Jim Schlotzhauer said. “(Harrisburg) lost him there for a minute, but as the game wore on, they knew where he was.”
Harrisburg (19-7) didn’t back down and eventually tied the score 17-17 by the end of the first quarter. New Franklin had to overcome some early foul trouble by Tanner White and Ryley Lyons, but the Bulldogs kept within reach, trailing 28-27 at halftime.
After shooting only three free throws in the first half, Harrisburg made 9-of-12 from the line in the third quarter. Harrisburg led by nine points late in the third quarter, but New Franklin went on a 10-0 run, retaking the lead 50-49 with 6:29 to play.
Harrisburg’s seniors came up with big points shortly thereafter. Rudkin drove to the hoop and scored to get the lead back, then Blake Berry stole the ball and scored. Kale Spry let out an emphatic fist pump after scoring an old-fashioned 3-point play at the 4:13 mark to put Harrisburg ahead 57-51.
“Our whole key was to rebound and box out,” Rudkin said. “If we could play some defense, we could stop them.”
New Franklin trimmed the lead to two points (62-60) with 49 seconds left, but Harrisburg’s defense forced some key turnovers late and made free throws at the other end.
“We went back to our roots with some full-court man-to-man pressure,” Combs said. “We turned them over a bit more and got the game going our way.”
New Franklin committed 28 turnovers in a 23-point loss to Harrisburg back in December. On Thursday, New Franklin had just 17.
“That’s a big difference,” Schlotzhauer said. “If we wanted to stay close with them, we couldn’t turn it over.”
Berry joined Rudkin with 15 points for Harrisburg, while Charles Roller and Spry each had 10 points. Blake Cochran scored nine points, Blake Williams had six points and JP Canote finished with four points.
For New Franklin, Tanner White had a team-best 14 points and Riley had 12 points, making another 3-pointer in the third quarter. Blake Carleton added 13 points, Lyons scored 10 points, Jacob Hendrix chipped in eight points and Tyler Hull had five points.