NEW PALESTINE — As the final seconds ticked off the clock late Saturday night, New Palestine sophomore Matthew True’s two-armed grip around the basketball tightened.
Having chased down the game’s decisive rebound along the baseline after an errant Rushville 3-pointer drew iron, True refused to let the ball or a Dragons’ chance at a win slip through his hands.
Only when the buzzer sounded did the guard relinquish. In the grand scheme, his fourth rebound of the night was more instinct than anything, a small act for the betterment of the team, much like diving on the court for two loose balls earlier as Rushville charged back in the second half.
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Yet, even something as minute as controlling possession adds up, True remarked after the Dragons defeated the visiting Lions 39-36.
“It’s a major thing to go for it on those type of plays. It provides energy for all of us. We feed off of those situations,” said True, who scored a game- and career-high 11 points in just his fourth varsity game. “We’re a young team, but we get more comfortable with each other every day. We’re getting better because of it.”
With one lone player back from last year’s starting five in 6-foot senior Jalen Qualkinbush, varsity experience is perpetual on-the-job training for most of the Dragons, said head coach Trent Whitaker.
Chemistry, belief and winning are a “work in progress,” he added. In the Dragons’ first triumph of the year after an 0-2 start, all three came into play.
When a desperation 3-pointer by Rushville’s Keith Yager sank through at the end of the first quarter to put the Lions up 9-8, the Dragons responded with a 10-1 run, which Qualkinbush capped with a trey. The play developed off an well-timed extra pass by sophomore Austin Keele.
The team’s collective effort on defense prevented the Lions from another field goal for a span of 14-plus minutes while the Dragons pulled ahead 23-13 in the third quarter with a True 3-pointer.
The lead, however, dissipated rapidly behind a 6-0 run by Rushville to end the third and narrowed to two points twice in the game’s final seconds.
Trust in the team’s depth and athleticism resulted in a 16-point fourth quarter as five different players scored, including two off the bench, to secure the victory.
“You draw it up and you want to win by 20 every single night, but with this group they’re going to have to battle every single night,” Whitaker said. “We talked about it the other night, how we have a roster full of 11 kids with around 70 varsity basketball games. Some 50 of those are with two guys. So we’re talking most of the other guys playing in their second or third games of their career.”
The disparity ranges from 26 games for Qualkinbush and 23 for sophomore Dylan Romine to only three for freshman point guard Maximus Gizzi, who has adjusted to the speed and competitiveness of the varsity game quickly.
Prior to his five-point effort on Saturday, Gizzi posted 15 points in the Dragons’ losses to Eastern Hancock on Nov. 26 and against Shenandoah last Friday during New Palestine’s home opener. His abilities and leadership has earned the trust of his teammates, said Whitaker, despite Gizzi only being 15.
“I really think once we start getting used to playing with each other, this can be a great season,” Gizzi shared when discussing the team’s season outlook. “A lot of guys on our team, these first couple of games have been their only games. I can see us being a really good team once we get that chemistry together.”
Though inexperienced, the team’s potential is evident with its roster, which carries several high-level athletes who have proven steady in pressure situations.
Senior Sam Voelz helped lead the Dragons cross-country team to its first sectional championship in 18 years and first-ever regional this fall. In track last year, he was part of the school’s state place-winning 4×800 relay that took 15th.
True is coming off a fifth consecutive sectional championship tennis season as the Dragons’ No. 1 singles player. Keele, a 6-2 center, was part of two straight undefeated regular seasons in football, a pair of Hoosier Heritage Conference championships and a Class 5A state runner-up finish in 2015.
“That is a luxury for us to have kids that have been in the spotlight and know what it takes,” Whitaker said.
Along with True, Gizzi brings seasoned savvy from the AAU circuit as a middle school standout, playing for Indiana Elite and turning heads during the 2015 MSHTV Camp at Lawrence North High School and other showcases.
Both contributed big shots in clutch moments Saturday for the Dragons. True buried three 3-pointers — his second built a 10-point lead for New Palestine. Keele’s and-1 with 2:59 left in the fourth quarter kept the Lions at bay 33-27.
Gizzi’s 3-for-4 foul shooting in the final eight minutes along with the team’s 5 of 6 conversions from the line in the last 30 seconds loomed large in preventing a 0-3 pitfall.
“That’s what we need to do. We all played together. It was a team win,” said Whitaker, who is in his second year at the helm. “Jalen can be and wants to be that guy every night, and he’s obviously our senior leader, but other teams know that, so they’re going to try to take him away. That’s when our youngsters need to step up.”
With Qualkinbush (14.0 points per game) facing double and triple teams against Rushville, he finished with nine points but True, Keele (seven points) and Gizzi (five points) took advantage.
It’s a trend Whitaker and the Dragons hope equates to the program’s first winning season since 2014-15, when they went 13-12. The team was 6-17 last winter.
“This win was huge, especially because we have two more games next week that we think we can win. Maybe we can get on a little bit of a roll, a three-game win streak,” Gizzi said. “That would be good, especially after such a rough start.”
The Dragons are on the road for another back-to-back weekend, traveling to rival Greenfield-Central on Friday and Westfield on Saturday.
“Any win gives us a boost and gives them fire and an idea of what we’re doing is good,” Whitaker said. “This is a big step in letting our kids know we believe in what they can do. We didn’t win much last year, so that’s what we’re trying to build, confidence in one another, as a team and as players.”
New Palestine 39, Rushville 36
RUSHVILLE (0-3) — Yager 4 0-0 10, Sheehan 1 2-2 4, Taylor 2 1-2 5, Farley 3 2-4 8, Sprinkle 1 0-0 2, Springman 2 0-2 5, Draper 1 0-2 2, Gettinger 0 0-0 0. Totals 14 5-12 36.
NEW PALESTINE (1-2) — Gizzi 1 3-4 5, Qualkinbush 4 0-3 9, VanRhoon 0 0-2 0, Biggs 1 0-0 3, True 3 2-2 11, Little 1 1-2 4, Voelz 0 0-0 0, Keele 1 5-7 7. Totals 11 11-20 39.
3-Pointers: Rushville 3 (Yager 2, Springman 1), New Palestine 6 (Qualkinbush 1, True 3, Little 1, Biggs 1). Rebounds: Rushville 25 (Taylor 5, Draper 5, Sheehan 4, Yager 4, Sprinkle 3), New Palestine 28 (Biggs 5, True 4, VanRhoon 4, Qualkinbush 3, Voelz 3, Keele 3). Fouls: Rushville 20, New Palestine 13. Fouled Out: Yager (RHS).