CHARLOTTESVILLE — Behind the scenes, Brycen Napier continued to grind. Even when no one was watching, Napier stayed true to the course.
After transferring from Morristown last season as a sophomore, the Eastern Hancock junior was ruled ineligible to play varsity. However, as a full-time member of the junior varsity squad, Napier displayed his basketball savvy. In practice, he gave the program’s best players a challenge defensively.
Now, Napier is showing his skills at the varsity level.
Napier’s 18 points, mixed with junior backcourt partner Addison True’s 24 points, was just what the Royals needed in a 61-51 win Saturday against county rival New Palestine.
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In the 65th meeting between the schools, the visiting Dragons came out confident, taking a seven-point advantage into halftime. After regrouping, Eastern Hancock chipped away at the lead in the third quarter and pulled away in the fourth to tally its first win this season.
Napier and True combined for 25 of the Royals’ 40 points in the second half.
“Addison and I would often play one-on-one,” Napier said, reflecting on last season and this past summer. “I couldn’t let not playing keep me down. I had to keep working, especially in the weight room.”
New Palestine countered the duo’s production with a veteran and a newcomer. Senior forward Jalen Qualkinbush was a menace around the baseline and basket, finishing with 20 points. Freshman point guard Maximus Gizzi showed little fear in his varsity debut, adding 15 points, six rebounds and five assists.
The Royals outscored the Dragons 20-9 in the third quarter and 20-14 in the fourth, though, to earn the win. They also scored nine more points at the foul line and made five more threes than New Palestine.
After leading Centerville at halftime in the team’s first game, Eastern Hancock lost 69-56. Saturday, the Royals put their feet to the pedal to ensure a victory.
“The intensity level wasn’t there (in the first half),” Napier said of Saturday’s contest. “We started out so-so. Then got a two-point lead and just got fired up.
“I think we took Centerville for granted. We realized we need to come out and play (Saturday).”
Qualkinbush did not miss a shot and finished with eight points in the first quarter as the Dragons led 13-7. He added five more in the second stanza, but the top play didn’t come from him.
Snaking the ball around the top of the key while setting a backdoor screen at right block, Gizzi lobbed a perfect pass toward the rim for 6-foot-1 junior Harrison VanRhoon, who slammed it home for two points and a 17-9 New Palestine lead with 5:15 left in the half.
The momentum would shift to the home team in the pivotal third quarter, though, as the Dragons managed just three field goals.
With the addition of Napier (18.5 points per game), mixed with True and junior guard A.J. Muegge, teams will suffer if focusing on one particular player. True, who was named an IBCA Top 100 Underclassmen last season, led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals and was an obvious focal point on opposing scouting reports. Napier, a smooth ball handler and sneaky athlete, will help add scoring balance.
“(Napier) helped us a ton last year (in practice),” said True, who is averaging 15.5 ppg this season. “He is very quick and can score. He attacks the basket well and gets people open shots. That is one thing last year that we didn’t have.”
Muegge, who is fresh off of football season, averaged 12.9 ppg a season ago and is just as capable of putting the ball in the basket at a high rate. He showed his range with a three in the fourth quarter on Saturday and finished with seven points and four rebounds.
Also for New Palestine, who returns to the court Friday at home against Shenandoah, sophomore guard Matthew True added five points, while VanRhoon finished with four.
Eastern Hancock will play again on Friday at home against Southwestern (Shelby).