NEW PALESTINE — Brian Kehrt peered up at the Hoosier Heritage Conference team banners hanging inside New Palestine’s gym on Saturday afternoon in astonishment.
More than 10 weeks before his Dragons’ New Year’s Eve conference finale against Pendleton Heights, Kehrt had a conversation with New Palestine assistant coach Rocky Thayer.
With only two seniors on the girls’ varsity roster — and one starter in Raegan McMurray — Thayer asked for Kehrt’s preseason prognostication.
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“On the first day of practice, coach Thayer came over to me and said, ‘where do you think we’ll be this year?,’” Kehrt recalled.
The veteran head coach, while optimistic, didn’t deviate from his inherent realism when answering the question.
“Well, Greenfield-Central has an Indiana Miss Basketball candidate, Pendleton has seven seniors and New Castle has tradition,” Kehrt responded this past October. “That leaves the rest of us all battling for fourth and fifth. That’s probably where we’ll end up.”
On Saturday, Kehrt had never been happier to admit he was wrong.
Despite missing out at a chance to claim their first HHC title since 1994 following a 57-44 loss to Pendleton Heights (11-3, 6-0 HHC), the Dragons guaranteed at least an “undisputed” second-place finish in the standings, which exceeded more than a few expectations.
The Dragons (10-5, 6-1 HHC), who placed third in 2015-16, entered Saturday’s matchup two games better in the HHC compared to the same point last year when they were 4-2.
After opening the 2016-17 season 1-3, they caught fire, winning nine straight, including key HHC games against New Castle, Greenfield-Central and Mt. Vernon to lead the league and set up their championship showdown with the Arabians.
However, while their mid-season success and longest winning streak in program history in two decades were impressive, how they achieved it proved most awe-inspiring, Kehrt remarked.
“I’m really proud of these young ladies to put themselves in this position. I’m pretty sure most people didn’t put us in the championship game on New Year’s Eve,” the head coach said. “But they worked to get here and with four sophomores and a senior on the floor.”
Though young, rotating several freshmen on the court, the Dragons excelled with defense this season, holding eight straight opponents under 50 points while McMurray averaged 16.1 points per game.
Against Pendleton Heights, McMurray scored a career-high 25 points on 9 of 16 shooting, 56 percent, but the Arabians could do little wrong, producing 11 or more points per quarter.
The Arabians shot 56 percent from the field and knocked down 5 of 13 3-pointers to break an 11-all tie in the first quarter to take a lead in the second that they wouldn’t relinquish.
“It’s tough not to over analyze games, but what we saw today was a team with seven seniors play a game with two seniors, and in this kind of a pressure situation, I thought their kids handled everything we threw at them,” Kehrt said.
Led by seniors Ashley King and Sam Hammel with 14 points apiece, the Arabians trailed 16-15 in the second quarter before flipping the deficit with a 12-2 run.
Fueled by seven Dragons’ second-quarter turnovers, Pendleton Heights pushed the tempo to lead 27-18 at halftime. New Palestine was limited to four attempts from the field in the second quarter and converted two along with a pair of free throws by McMurray.
“I knew we were going to have to play our best game to beat a senior-laden team that’s really kind of on a roll right now,” Kehrt said. “I knew if they hit threes, we were in trouble.”
The Arabians surpassed their 28 percent 3-point average by converting at 38 percent, leading to a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter after senior Maggie Dooley buried a quick trey.
Dooley finished with eight points, junior Lauren Landes had nine points and senior Kelsey Burton added eight points for the Arabians.
“We have five girls in the starting lineup that are capable of 15 to 20 (points) every night. That’s a nice feature to our game,” Pendleton Heights head coach Chad Cook said. “We play teams with Division I players, but I think we have a group that’s much better as a team than maybe the sum of the parts.”
McMurray, who was limited to six points in the first half, scored 19 points in the final 16 minutes, including 12 of the Dragons’ 14 in the third quarter in an attempt to spark her team.
She was 6-for-6 from the free-throw line and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds.
“Honestly, I never thought we would be in the conference championship as young as the team is, but once we started getting on our run, it become possible,” McMurray said. “Unfortunately, we were forcing a lot of shots and forcing everything, trying to be too quick today. It just wasn’t there. Our defense wasn’t there either.
“It was rough second quarter. If we hadn’t had that quarter, I think it would have been a lot closer game.”
The Arabians, who now hold a half-game lead over the Dragons in the HHC, have one more league game to play on Jan. 28 at Yorktown.
A win secures an outright title for the program. A loss gives the Dragons a share of the championship.
“You really have to earn it in our conference,” Cook said. “It means a lot if you can win it. I know we can share it, if we lose to Yorktown that last game, but I don’t like to share. I’m still working on my kindergarten lessons there. We’re going to try to win this thing outright.”
With an off day that night, McMurray and the Dragons might attend the game to see how the final standings fall — and to show their support for the host Tigers.
“We’re going to be huge Yorktown fans,” McMurray laughed. “We’re going to be cheering them on the whole time.”
“I told the kids, I’m going to wear my Yorktown shirt that day,” Kehrt added with a grin. “Hopefully, we learn from this, as we have all season, and use it to win. We still have sectional coming up.”