NEW PALESTINE — No one wanted to leave. Not without trying to sink the impossible shot.
Nearly 15 minutes after practice wrapped up on Wednesday, New Palestine head coach Trent Whitaker watched as several of his varsity players hung back, took aim and let the ball fly through the rafters and toward the hoop.
“We’ve had one of those go in,” Whitaker remarked while his Dragons took turns firing the half-court trick shot.
Before Whitaker could complete his sentence a ball snapped through the net, inducing a roar of cheers on the court.
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“That’s the thing about this team,” Whitaker laughed as his Dragons celebrated the unthinkable bucket. “They’re still here, and practice is over.”
The Dragons weren’t budging. Once the buzz from the 42-foot heave faded, the dribbling resumed and so did the jumpers.
There was work to be done — on and off the clock — and an even bigger shot awaiting the Class 3A Dragons tonight in the Sectional 27 semifinals at Brebeuf Jesuit.
After beating Indianapolis Marshall (7-15) on Tuesday 68-50 to open the sectional, the Dragons (7-16) will play Bishop Chatard (3-19) at 6 p.m. with a chance to reach their fourth championship game in nine years.
“Opportunity has been a big word around here,” Whitaker said of the Dragons’ postseason path. “We talked about how I said in the preseason this was a work in progress. People don’t know us now, so it’s our job to make sure people notice us. We’ve got (tonight) to work on that.”
Top on their list of priorities against the Trojans is “finishing,” something the Dragons have used to their advantage recently to put together a two-game winning streak — their longest this season.
New Palestine discovered it during its 71-53 victory against 4A Greenwood in the regular-season finale last Friday while fending off a late comeback by the Woodmen.
Their knack for closing came into play again on Tuesday against the Patriots, who the Dragons beat by 30 points earlier this season on Jan. 7.
Wrestling with some initial jitters, the Dragons struggled the first five minutes in the sectional opener, Whitaker said, tied at 10-all after the first quarter before catching fire.
Led by sophomore sharpshooter Matthew True’s game-high 24 points and senior Jalen Qualkinbush’s season-best 23, New Palestine outscored the Patriots 58-40 and posted 25 points in the last eight minutes.
“We came out a little nervous, but we got that out of the way,” said Qualkinbush, who is averaging 11.6 points per game. “I feel like we’re going to come out strong (tonight). As good as our draw is, we feel we can give this a shot, and maybe win.”
“Why not us?” has been the question driving the team, True said. Positioned in the opposite bracket of No. 4 Indianapolis Crispus Attucks (19-4) and No. 8 Indianapolis Manual (18-6), the Dragons know they control their own destiny.
“There’s a huge chance for us to be where we want to be, in that championship game on Saturday,” True said. “We started clicking last week, and this week we’ve played as a team again. We just keep on building confidence as we focus on each other more and trust in each other.”
Their belief in one another and unselfish approach on offense has the team peaking at the right time.
Freshman point guard Maximus Gizzi leads the Dragons in scoring (12.3 ppg) and drives the tempo with 3.5 assists per game, but True, who is averaging 11.1 ppg can go ballistic when needed. On Tuesday, he found net from deep with five 3-pointers.
Junior Gavin Hausz brings 8.9 ppg to the mix, and sophomore Dylan Romine gives the Dragons an additional scoring threat along with the energy and leadership of seniors Qualkinbush, Sam Voelz and Graham Biggs.
“They’ve always felt they could play with teams. The difference is we finished one and it’s carried over,” said Whitaker whose program endured two difficult six-game losing streaks this season. “We have an opportunity to win it, and that’s what we’re focused on to take that next step.”
That doesn’t include overlooking the Trojans, who started the year 0-12 and don’t have a player averaging more than 7.8 ppg.
“They could come out and beat us,” Qualkinbush said. “We just need to come out and knock down our shots and play like we have been. We need to play as a team and stick together.”