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The Pirates' treasure: Sharpshooter Saia sparks Merrillville's worst to first Duneland turnaround

MICHIGAN CITY -- It's been a minute since Bo Patton hasn't been the best shooter in the gym at Merrillville, and when you're the coach like he is, that's not ideal.

After four years with poor perimeter shooting, the Pirates unearthed a treasure chest this season in the form of transfer Preston Saia.

"I'm going to actually go with Preston," said Patton on whether his 3-point status has been usurped. "It's the first time I've picked a player. It's close, but I'll give him a slight edge. I'm old now."

Patton's thrilled to pass the torch, the former Merrillville star having gained the outside threat that was missing in the equation over the course of four seasons with no better than a .500 record.

"I went to a lot of their games (last year) and thought they were missing one thing, a shooter," Saia said. "I never got a chance to play for a sectional championship, playoffs (at Bosco). Every year I played, it was just the season and it was over. I wanted a chance, my senior year especially, to make it to the playoffs, and I thought Merrillville was the perfect fit."

The 6-foot-7 senior with in-the-gym range played at Crown Point as a freshman before spending two years at Don Bosco. While he was there the last two winters, the Pirates (14-7, 5-2) won one Duneland Conference game. With him in purple, they won five this season, gaining a one-fourth share of the title Friday with a 73-68 win over Michigan City. Coupled with Lake Central defeating Crown Point and Valparaiso beating Chesterton, they completed the worst-to-first leap.

"One of our superfans was keeping up with the scores," Patton said, shouting the news while heading to the locker room. "I played for coach Jim East and we were always on top of the DAC. It's big not just for us, but for the community. I said before the season we were playing for something bigger than ourselves. That's what it meant to us. We want Merrillville to stay at the top of the conference, like we used to be all the time, the guys coming after this and after this. That's the standard. The goal is always a state championship, but it starts with conference, which is always tough."

Saia scored 24 points, including six 3s to point the way. Three of the long balls came in the first 90 seconds of the second half, when a 12-0 start turned a three-point deficit into a lead of nine.

"He always tells us, if you like it, shoot it," Saia said. "He doesn't make strict rules. Keep shooting."

A week earlier, Saia hit four triples in a win at La Porte, shaking off a dry spell after a splashy start to the season that Patton chalked up to confidence more than mechanics.

"I'd look at the film, watch if my feet are wrong, my arms, something," Saia said. "I found out I wasn't set toward the basket, so I just kept working on shooting it perfectly. It came back."

City coach Tom Wells wish it hadn't.

"Obviously they shot the ball really, really well," Wells said. "Defensively, you have two goals when it comes to twos and threes. Make them score tough twos. If they score over the top of us, tip of the hat. You've got to take away rhythm 3s, where they just get to step into it with all kinds of space. They got a ton of rhythm 3s. They're deep ones, but it's not a surprise. We see it on film. we know."

Shaun Clemons added four treys, three of them in the third quarter, and Jaeden Williams a pair as the Pirates shot 12-of-25 from downtown.

"(Patton) just tells us shoot it if we like it," Clemons said. "I liked the shot, I hit one, so I felt good. It means a lot. We've been working so hard, trying to turn around the program, just keep moving forward."

Saia was followed by Clemons (17) and Jaeden Williams (14).

"I'll go second and Shaun third," Patton said of the shooting 'rankings.' "We had some other guys step up, too. Williams was huge, big layups down the stretch, controlling the game. KeyShawn Mitchell always is a lift for us off the bench, very good rebounding, guarding bigger kids. You put all those together, we can be a very good team."

While Saia's recruiting interest at this point is NAIA, NCAA Division III, Patton believes he can play at a higher level, and a tournament run certainly wouldn't hurt with that.

"I'm open to any level," Saia said. "I'm going to continue the season, see where I fall, just trust in God's plan."

Michigan City's Allen Briggs looks for a teammate as Merrillville's Shaun Clemons leaps to defend him in Friday's game. The Pirates won 73-68. (Photo by Mike Kellems)

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