WHITELAND — Kevin Riley said he knew New Palestine would face Center Grove again after the Trojans handed the Dragons a 68-54 loss in their second game of the season.
New Palestine got its chance Tuesday in the Class 4A Whiteland Sectional’s first round. The Dragons turned that loss three months ago on its head in the process.
After trailing 28-26 at halftime, the Dragons pieced together 11-2 and 9-0 runs in the second half to build a 49-40 lead, then held on for a 57-52 upset victory.
The win, New Palestine’s first in seven tries all-time against Center Grove, places the Dragons (12-11) in Friday’s second semifinal against Greenwood (3-20), which drew the bye.
The game will tip off around 7:30 p.m.
Center Grove — which ended regular-season play on a four-game winning streak, including a win against eighth-ranked North Central — ended its season at 13-10.
“We had been working toward beating (Center Grove) ever since that last game,” said Riley, New Palestine’s senior forward, referring to the Dec. 5 loss. “We had a feeling we would play them again, and we had them in the back of our minds.”
After Center Grove took a 33-29 lead with 6:08 remaining in the third quarter, the Dragons outscored the Trojans 20-7 during the game’s next 7:51, spanning the third and early fourth quarters.
That gave New Palestine a 49-40 lead. The Trojans scored three straight baskets to trim the lead to 49-46 with 3:38 remaining but couldn’t draw closer. They hit just 1 of 9 3-point attempts in the second half, including several futile attempts as they tried to claw back into the game.
“New Palestine was the tougher team,” Center Grove coach Zach Hahn said. “They were more physical. They were the first guys to get to the ball, and they finished layups. We weren’t in the gaps, didn’t finish layups and didn’t box out.”
Riley, Ryan Curry and Cody Long did the most damage to the Trojans, at least on the stat sheet.
Riley finished with 17 points, including 12 in the second half, while Long came off the bench to score 11 points and grab a game-high 12 rebounds. Curry led everyone with 20 points and pulled down nine rebounds.
“Cody has had his ups and downs, but he grabbed some big rebounds for us (Tuesday),” New Palestine coach Adam Barton said.
“When we played Center Grove earlier, we tried to clog the middle. This time, we stayed next to their shooters and made them throw it to the pick-and-roll guy. We made them take shots that weren’t their favorites.”
Senior Michael Benkert led the Trojans with 13 points and nine rebounds. Anderson McCoy added 10 points and five rebounds, while Sam Hendershott and Bailey Barrett each scored eight points off the bench.
Center Grove shot 21 of 48 from the floor (43.8 percent), which was only slightly worse than New Palestine’s 20 of 42 effort (47.6 percent). But the Trojans hit just 7 of 14 free throws and 3 of 13 from 3-point range.
As for the Dragons, Barton and Curry said their tough late-season stretch, during which they went 3-9 after an 8-2 start, prepared them well for Tuesday’s game.
“It wasn’t fun at all, but we stuck with it,” Barton said. “We weren’t very good defensively (early in the season). We tried zone and press and finally just decided to get better at man-to-man. The kids bought into it.”
Meanwhile, Hahn, in his first year as the Trojans’ head coach complete, found successes in the season overall despite Tuesday’s loss.
“I’m proud of our seniors. They did a great job,” he said. “We’re trying to change the culture, and we accomplished a lot of things, but it just didn’t translate at the end of the year.”