FORTVILLE — The message Travis Daugherty gave his players at halftime was simple: Stay the course.
The head coach’s words sunk in for an already motivated Mt. Vernon Marauders team looking for not only revenge on Friday night but to keep pace in the Hoosier Heritage Conference race.
Winless against the New Castle Trojans in their past two meetings, the Marauders shot a blistering 68 percent in the second half to erase a once 11-point deficit to win in a thriller 65-63.
“We wanted this one real bad. They knocked us out last year and that was all I could think about before the game, how it felt after losing at sectional,” Mt. Vernon senior Michael Ertel said. “We wanted it as bad as you could want a game.”
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Losing to New Castle 85-76 in the sectional semifinals last March and 55-54 during the 2015-16 regular season — both on the Trojans’ home floor — the host Marauders (5-4, 2-1 HHC) returned the favor with a furious 9-0 run late in the fourth quarter behind several clutch shots.
Ertel, who was recognized for surpassing the 1,000 point mark before the game, added to his career total with a game-high 23 points. He went 6-for-6 from the field in the second half and tied the game twice in the final two minutes.
The teams traded leads five times and were deadlocked seven times, but an Ertel 3-pointer followed by an and-1 layup setup the Marauders’ final push.
“I didn’t shoot very well in the first half, but the coaches just told me to keep playing, keep shooting, and they would fall. They did, and other guys started making shots, and we started making plays, playing confidently,” Ertel said. “That was the message coming out of halftime, stay confident.”
Ertel shot 20 percent from the floor through the first 16 minutes as the team’s percentage hovered around 30. The Trojans (7-1, 2-1 HHC) broke an 18-all tie after the first quarter with an 8-3 run in the second and led by eight points by halftime.
With three players in double figures, New Castle extended its lead to 46-35 in the third quarter. Sophomore Luke Bumbalough finished with a team-high 17 points and junior Niah Williamson had 13. Mason Gillis, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, scored 16 points with eight rebounds.
“This was a game were we couldn’t make many mistakes, so on both ends of the floor we had to do it right. If we did, we would have an opportunity to win,” Daugherty said. “You could see the guys weren’t ready to give in despite the ugliness of the first half.”
The Marauders erupted for 18 points in the third quarter to cut the Trojans lead to five points and poured in 20 points in the final eight minutes as four players contributed double-digit performances.
Logan Smith buried two key 3-pointers in the third quarter for 10 points total. Damari Gatewood had 11 points, going 2-for-3 from beyond the arc. Ertel was hit four treys in the second half.
McCloud, who drew the toughest assignment on defense against Gillis, had 12 points, but the most crucial came with the game tied at 63 and 1:29 left.
Set in the four corners, the Marauders made their move with 20 seconds remaining. McCloud drove the lane and drew a foul with 6.5 ticks left.
The 6-5 senior didn’t flinch from 10-feet out.
“That was big time,” Ertel said. “He made a great play, taking it to the hole, and got fouled. Honestly, when he got fouled, I was worried about what we were going to do on defense after he made them. I knew he was going to make them.”
The defense forced a turnover in the waning seconds, snapping New Castle’s seven-game winning streak and thrusting themselves back into the HHC race.
The Marauders, who shared the conference title last year, host rival Greenfield-Central (5-5, 2-0 HHC) next Friday.
“We stayed in the fight and obviously, made some enormous plays late in the game,” Daugherty said. “(New Castle) beat us in two hard-fought, emotional games last year. They ended our season, so there’s always that element. More urgently for us was our position in the conference race.
“If we lost tonight, we would have been in tough spot. We still gave one away, but we’re still in the fight.”