SHELBYVILLE — New Palestine head coach Trent Whitaker had a message for his team after the Dragons dropped their third straight game Friday night, and it had nothing to do with the final score.
“We’re right there,” Whitaker remarked after his Dragons lost at Shelbyville 92-79. “In that first quarter, that’s who we are and who we are going to be.”
For the game’s first eight-plus minutes, the Dragons didn’t just believe, they executed from the opening tip. New Palestine jumped out to a 9-2 run and led 22-15 entering the second quarter.
Their margin grew to 12 points with 6:36 remaining in the first half, and then the host Golden Bears roared back with a 22-4 run en route to their fifth straight win.
Shelbyville junior Zach Kuhn, who stands 6-foot-4, scored a game-high 36 points and hauled in 10 rebounds while junior Cooper Lewis added 26 points.
The Golden Bears (12-6) improved to 6-2 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference. The Dragons (4-14) dropped to 1-5 in the league.
“We have to keep believing in each other and have that confidence to keep going out and playing a second and third quarter like we did that first quarter,” Whitaker said. “That’s what we need to work for.
“It doesn’t show up every night, but tonight in the first quarter it did. The kids were playing for each other and that’s who the Dragons are.”
They never quit either, even as they fell behind by nine points early in the third quarter 45-36.
Jalen Qualkinbush posted a team-high 17 points, shooting 7 of 7 from the free-throw line. Maximus Gizzi had 13 points while Dylan Romine added 10. Gavin Hausz provided 13 points off the bench.
The Dragons clawed back late in the third quarter as Graham Biggs’ and-1 pulled New Palestine within six points. But the Golden Bears kept responding with a 30-point final frame and a 28-point second quarter.
New Palestine finished with a 27-point fourth and shot 20 of 23 from the foul line, but Kuhn was literally unstoppable once he found his rhythm.
Kuhn had 17 points by halftime and had 14 in the fourth quarter alone, while shooting 5 of 10 from 3-pointer range in the game.
“We tried three different kids on Kuhn. We ran a second guy at him a couple of times, and he was in the zone. He felt it, and he shot the basketball extremely well,” Whitaker said. “Kudos to him.”
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Gizzi added. “I’ve seen him around AAU a lot, and I love to watch him. He’s an absolute stud.”
Kuhn converted back-to-back treys during a 13-3 run by the Golden Bears in the fourth, which pushed their lead to 77-63. Their largest lead was 14 points.
“The first quarter is what we can be permanently, full-time in the future,” Gizzi emphasized. “That’s what I’m looking forward to as we end the season, building from one quarter to two to three and on.”
The Dragons travel to Connersville tonight to complete their back-to-back weekend. Their hope is to harness the momentum they had in spurts and turn it into a complete 32 minutes to end their current three-game losing streak with four game left until sectional.
“We were finally getting to the basket tonight. We were moving the ball really well,” Qualkinbush said. “This hurts, but you have to keep your head up.”