For The Daily Reporter
GREENWOOD — The New Palestine Dragons hung their hat on strong defense all season.
In the postseason, they turned that up a few more notches.
The Dragons held Greenwood to two points in the first 14 and a half minutes and used that suffocating defensive effort to pull away to a 46-26 victory against Greenwood in Friday’s Class 4A sectional semifinal at Greenwood.
New Palestine is now 12-11 and will play Center Grove (19-6) at 7 p.m. today for the sectional championship. Center Grove beat Franklin Central 37-34 in Friday’s first semifinal.
But the Dragons were also solid offensively, spreading the floor and driving to the rim, forcing Greenwood to commit a number of fouls and put the Dragons on the line. NP shot 30-of-42 from the stripe in the game against a Woodmen team battling foul trouble.
“You could just see it. It was a spillover from the last couple of games of the season. We started to gain a little bit of confidence offensively,” New Palestine coach Brian Kehrt said, noting the Dragons scored 56 points against a solid Connersville team in the regular-season finale. “You saw it in their eyes — I had a really good feeling coming into tonight.”
Defensively, the Dragons put the clamps on Greenwood and guard Holly Hoopingarner with a modified 1-3-1 defense, using a chaser on Hoopingarner and not allowing her any looks. She scored two first-half points — on the final possession of the half — and finished with 15, two weeks after scoring 39 against NP.
“We made some adjustments from the first time, and we were going to try not to let Hoopingarner beat us,” Kehrt said. “Our kids did an exceptional job playing the defense.”
The Dragons will be playing in a sectional final for the first time since 2009, and their 12 wins are the program’s most since 2004-05. The Dragons will be looking to win their first sectional championship since the 2004 regional finalists.
In the opening half, the Dragons jumped out to an 11-2 first-quarter lead against a 2-3 zone employed by Greenwood, as NP spread the floor and found seams in the zone. Raegan McMurray scored nine of her team-high 15 points in the opening eight minutes. But New Palestine also scored the first seven points of the second quarter to open up an 18-2 edge.
In the second half, the Dragons spread the floor and got to the rim, forcing Greenwood to foul. New Palestine got to free throw line 30 times, hitting 22.
“It’s nice to win games with our defense — and we do that a lot — but it’d be nice to finish them off with our offense,” Kehrt said. “I really felt like we had five kids on the floor that, at any given time, they could go score. It was our offense in the second half that caused them a lot of problems. Our kids just became difficult to guard. Credit to them. They’ve had a big jump and improved in that area. We’re always going to defend, but when the offense rolls with it, that’s something special.”
McMurray led the way with 15 points — hitting 3-of-6 from the floor and 9-of-13 from the stripe — and nine rebounds. Gia Nitschke added 12 points, hitting 8-of-12 from the stripe — two assists and five boards. Carly Hackler had seven rebounds, and Emma Laughlin had seven points, six boards and three steals.
“When you’re putting pressure on the defense the way we did, you’re going to shoot free throws,” Kehrt said. “Credit to our kids to keep attacking.”
New Palestine held Greenwood to 11-of-50 shooting and didn’t allow the Woodmen a free throw attempt.
As a result, the Dragons have earned the right to play for a sectional championship, their first title-game appearance as a 4A program.
“They’ve grown. They’re excited,” Kehrt said. “The great thing about tomorrow night is, we have nothing to lose. We’re not supposed to be there. That’s a plus for us, plus the fact that we’ve won a tournament this year, they have the most regular-season wins in 10 years. That stuff can’t be taken away. This is just icing on the cake. I hope because of that, we go out tomorrow night and play loose with nothing to lose.”