Dragons push unbeaten Trojans to the brink

NEW PALESTINE — With a freshman and two sophomores in its starting lineup, every game is a growing experience for the New Palestine boys basketball team.

The Dragons continued to make big plays down the stretch, but New Castle was able to make one more and held off the Dragons 79-77 in double overtime.

Sophomore Matthew True had 26 points for the Dragons – including five 3-pointers – and freshman Maximus Gizzi had 20. He scored 12 straight points for the Dragons as they took a 21-19 first-half lead.

But the Dragons also got a big boost from junior Gavin Hausz, who was making his season debut after rehabbing from an injury suffered in the summer. He knocked down four second-half 3-pointers and scored 14 points for the Dragons.

“We talk about getting better every week. I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d come out and do what we did,” New Palestine head coach Trent Whitaker said. “We keep talking about getting better. We did tonight. Hopefully, this is a catapult to better things to come.”

The Dragons fall to 1-5, but grew up a lot going toe-to-toe with a 7-0 New Castle squad.

The contest was a roller-coaster. New Palestine seized control early when Gizzi hit back-to-back threes to give the Dragons a 15-9 lead late in the first. He and True combined for 28 first-half points, including five 3-pointers, to stake the Dragons to a 32-24 halftime edge.

Hausz hit three third-quarter 3-pointers to put the Dragons up 44-33 when New Castle got hot. Led by Luke Bumbalough, the Trojans hit 10 of 14 in the third quarter and cut New Palestine’s lead to 51-49 after the quarter, and eventually pulled ahead by six late in the fourth.

The Dragons battled back as Hausz hit a driving shot and a 3-pointer to pull the Dragons within two. After Jalen Qualkinbush’s deflection forced a turnover in the final minute, New Palestine worked the ball around to Qualkinbush for an open 3-pointer from the left wing to give the Dragons a one-point lead with 14 seconds left.

New Palestine forced two misses on New Castle’s final possession, but with New Castle’s Titen Bennett batting the ball in the air trying to secure a rebound in the final second, a foul was called on the Dragons. Bennett hit one of the two free throws to send the game to OT.

Each team scored four points in the first overtime, with True’s steal stymieing a last-second Trojan opportunity. In the second, David Froedge hit an early 3-pointer, but New Palestine battled back on a baskets by Gizzi and Austin Keele.

Bumbalough hit a running shot in the lane in the final minute to give the Trojans the lead back, and they hung on, although New Palestine had a driving shot to tie in the closing seconds.

“We played comfortable tonight. We played confident. Our kids are starting to believe. We showed in the first half what we can do. We said at halftime, ‘they’re a good team. They’re going to make a run. How are you going to respond?’ Gavin coming back was just a huge lift for us emotionally for everybody. Jalen Qualkinbush hit a huge shot. I can’t say enough about Gizzi’s effort,” Whitaker said. “And Graham Biggs (with four assists) played an incredible game – he did some great things.”

Froedge led New Castle with 24 points, Bumbalough had 18 and Bennett 15. Mason Gillis, one of the state’s top sophomores, had 12 points and 17 rebounds, but was kept off the scoreboard in the final quarter and overtimes.

New Palestine returns home tonight to face Franklin Central in the team’s first Teddy Bear Toss game. Fans are encouraged to bring new or gently used teddy bears, which will be donated to the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen’s Day of Caring.