NEW PALESTINE — With both teams leading their respective conferences, Tuesday’s girls basketball game between New Palestine and Beech Grove looked to be a marquee matchup.

Early on, it appeared the visiting Hornets would have their way. Led by guard Cameron Cardenas, they seized command and held a 15-point lead midway through the second quarter. New Palestine staged a furious second-half rally, cutting the deficit to four, but it fell just short as Beech Grove handed New Palestine a 51-45 defeat.

Playing the first of two big games this week, New Palestine fell to 13-5 on the season. The Dragons host fellow Hoosier Heritage Conference co-leader Pendleton Heights Thursday, with the winner claiming at least a share of the league title. Beech Grove, which shares the Indiana Crossroads Conference lead with Triton Central and is in the midst of its best season in 15 years, improved to 15-4.

Leah Seib tied her career high with 19 points for New Palestine. She helped lead the second-half rally, as New Palestine went on a 14-2 run to cut a 38-22 deficit to 40-36. New Palestine held Beech Grove without a field goal for 7:45, and gradually climbed back into the game, as Tatum Biddle and Seib scored the third quarter’s last six points, and Seib opened the fourth with a 3-pointer.

Megan Jolly’s steal-and-score with 5:39 left cut Beech Grove’s lead to four. But the Hornets’ Katie Giller responded with back-to-back baskets and Cardenas hit a driving shot, while New Palestine missed its next six shots, to go back up 10.

The Dragons’ run was fueled by their defense, especially on Cardenas. She scored 19 points on 8 of 11 shooting in the first half, but was 2 of 5 in the second half and was held to six points. Giller, Beech Grove’s 6-foot forward who can stretch the floor, scored nine of her 14 points after halftime.

“At halftime, we focused on how we were going to slow (Cardenas) down, and also maintain our defense on (Giller),” New Palestine coach Sarah Gizzi said. “Those two create incredible matchup issues. They have another player or two who are 6-1. We wanted to close it to eight by the end of the third, and we got it to nine. Once we got it under 10, we felt pretty good. We just had trouble getting stops and getting a string of stops together, or we’d get a stop and not score.”

The tone was set early, as Beech Grove jumped out to leads of 8-0 and 24-9. New Palestine cut the lead to 12 on Haley Harrison’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the half, but Cardenas went coast-to-coast at the buzzer to push it back to 30-16. New Palestine shot 24 percent – 6 of 25 – in the opening half, while Beech Grove was 50 percent at 12 of 24.

New Palestine ratcheted up its defense in the second, holding the visiting Hornets to 7 of 18, while the Dragons’ shooting improved. New Palestine finished the game at 33 percent – 18 of 53 — while Beech Grove was 19 of 42.

Jolly added nine points and three steals for the Dragons. Seib added nine rebounds to her double-figure night. Katie Herron and Tatum Biddle added five points and four boards each, while Emma Grable gave the Dragons valuable minutes off the bench with five boards. Harrison had three assists, six rebounds and a steal while playing solid second-half defense on the taller Giller.

The Dragons are looking to build on their second-half effort – and improve on their start – with a conference championship game two days away.

“It’s hard because we don’t want to dwell on mistakes, but if you don’t clean up mistakes, you’re not going to win games,” Gizzi said. “That’s what we focused on after the game. If you don’t shoot better, if you don’t execute better, you don’t win games. We said, ‘we want you to be confident players. We have confidence in you. We have to figure out a way to improve those areas.’ Beech Grove is excellent. They’re very good.”