INDIANAPOLIS — In Indiana high school basketball, all roads lead to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in March.
Even in defeat, the New Palestine Dragons used a trip to the fieldhouse as another step in preparing them for the “next” season.
The Dragons dropped a 63-56 decision to Mooresville on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the program’s first non-tournament neutral site game in 24 years, but the experience and the preparation meant much more than the final result.
New Palestine played another game in what has been a run through the toughest part of its schedule — six of the past eight games have been against teams rated in the top 100 in the Sagarin computer ratings — and Mooresville (14-2) came in a top-20 squad.
“We went through in the scouting report (this weekend) and listed, we had six losses (in January), five of those teams were top 100 Sagarin-rated teams. Six of our last seven losses are to really quality teams,” New Palestine coach Adam Barton said of the team’s January run. “(Mooresville) would be the highest-ranked of all of those. They’ve got great offense, lots of people who can hit shots; they’re very comfortable with the ball.”
The Dragons also got to experience playing in the home of the Indiana Pacers — even noting who was sitting in their seats 24 hours prior — and took in every moment, even down to stopping on the way to the bus in an empty arena postgame and posing for a team photo at midcourt.
“They’re still kids; when we went down the ramp by the guard shack and come in underneath, they thought they were on a roller coaster,” Barton said. “They were peeking in every room, checking out every nook and cranny. We were on the visitors’ bench, and they were saying ‘LeBron James was on the visitors’ bench last night.’ It was a neat opportunity.”
It’s also the second game in a three-game stretch of big arenas — they played in the 5,832-seat Garrett Gym at Shelbyville on Friday and will play in the 5,847-seat Spartan Bowl at Connersville on Saturday.
At Bankers Life, Mooresville jumped out to an early 6-0 lead, but the Dragons answered with 3-pointers by Ryan Curry and Caleb VanderWal, keying a seven-point run. The lead swapped hands a handful of times in a close first half, but Mooresville seized control late in the second quarter with a 9-0 run that put the Pioneers up 34-24 at half.
“At the end of the second quarter, that was some killer minutes. We called a timeout with a couple minutes left and said, ‘This is a lockdown possession; we’ve got to get a stop,’” Barton said. “We didn’t. Then, we turned it over and gave up another easy bucket.”
The start of the second half featured a Dragons rally — New Palestine started the third quarter with a 14-2 run that saw Curry score five points, Kevin Riley drain a 3-pointer, and Taylor Hiland score a rare six-point play to cap it off. He hit a shot on a fast break, drew an intentional foul on the play, hit both free throws and then scored on a post move to put the Dragons up 38-36 midway through the quarter.
Mooresville answered with seven straight points, all by forward Lane Weaver, a 15.8-ppg scorer who scored seven of his team-high 17 points in the third.
He had a three-point play to re-take the lead for the Pioneers, then hit two more shots to put Mooresville up 43-38. Duke Blackwell’s steal-and-score ahead of the buzzer cut the deficit to three, but K.C. Earls scored seven fourth-quarter points to allow the Pioneers to keep New Palestine at bay and hold off a Dragons’ run.
“Third quarter, we battled back; we had a nice run,” Barton said, noting Hiland’s six-point play. “That brought us back into the game.”
Mooresville’s leading scorers — Weaver and Earls, both of whom average over 14 ppg — led the way by scoring 33 of their team’s 63 points. Weaver had 17, Earls 16. Chandler Gunnell and Cameron Harris each added seven off the bench — Gunnell had five in the fourth quarter, including a key three-point play that opened the scoring in the period and put the Pioneers up 48-40.
For the Dragons, Curry led the way with 19 points, one night after scoring a school-record 46. Again, he shot well from beyond the arc, hitting four 3-pointers against tight defense.
The Dragons spread their scoring around, with nine different players getting into the scorebook. Riley added eight, while Hiland, Alec Cook and VanderWal each scored six. Blackwell added five second-half points at key moments, including a last-minute steal while the Dragons were trying to come back.
The number of players hitting key shots is crucial for the Dragons as they hit the final three weeks of the regular season.
“That’s huge tournament-time. You always hope you have two scorers and dream about three. We have multiple people that can step up at different times and make us tough to defend,” Barton said. “If we continue to get better on defense and, come sectional time, if we shoot the ball the way we can shoot the ball, we’re going to scare some people. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be a very tough out in the tournament this year.”