NEW PALESTINE — Lightning does indeed strike twice.
For the second straight year, the New Palestine Dragons had an opportunity to capture at least a share of the Hoosier Heritage Conference championship on their home floor.
For a second consecutive season, the Pendleton Heights Arabians denied them their chance.
Up twice against the visiting Arabians in the final four minutes of regulation — and ahead by one point with 23.1 seconds remaining — the Dragons (13-6, 5-2 HHC) came up short, again, falling 44-43 as Pendleton Heights (13-7, 6-1 HHC) successfully defended their title.
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“It’s really tough. It’s devastating that we lost,” New Palestine’s Leah Seib said afterwards. “We came out thinking this was our court. We had to protect it and we needed to go hard, push the ball and take it to them.”
Losing to the Arabians 57-44 on New Year’s Eve last season, the Dragons were in prime position to write a new chapter, leading 43-42 with 23.1 seconds left Thursday night.
Answering a 3-pointer by sophomore Aubree Dwiggins, who put the Arabians ahead 42-41 with 51 seconds left on the clock, the Dragons jumped back in front behind a Leah Seib layup.
However, Dwiggins answered the call again with a tear drop bucket in the post and 6.3 seconds remaining to make one final push.
“We had a little bit of trouble with some over helping. When that happens sometimes our guards are a little bit more aggressive than they need to be, and so it kind of spirals,” Gizzi said on Dwiggins’ layup in the paint. “In the second half, we tried to be more aggressive, and I think we got burned on that a couple of times. I just think they were keyed up and it happens.”
The Dragons championship hopes slipped away as a contested layup by Seib rimmed and bounced out when the final horn sounded.
“We could have got a better shot, but you have to take what they gave us,” Seib said.
Seib scored a team-high nine points in the loss while Katie Herron, Haley Harrison and Emily Newcomb all added eight points apiece.
Herron had seven rebounds, but the Arabians had a pair of double-digit scores in Dwiggins with 14 points and Laikyn Conner with 10.
Unlike last year, the new-look Pendleton Heights Arabians were young and inexperienced after graduating five seniors and losing a majority of their offensive production.
They didn’t show much hesitation. In the game, there were 16 lead changes and seven ties.
“These girls are cardiac kids. They’re resilient. They’re tough. This group is eager to get a chance,” Pendleton Heights head coach Chad Cook said. “Those girls that left the spot open for these girls, gave them an opportunity this year, and they’ve been heroes a lot this year, chomping at the bit.”
The Dragons led early 7-2 before the Arabians posted an 8-0 run to go up 10-7 in the first quarter. A 6-1 run by Pendleton Heights gave them a 23-18 lead in the second quarter.
In the third, the Dragons stormed back with an 8-2 run to lead 27-24 and a Newcomb 3-pointer before the buzzer at the end of the frame pulled New Palestine back in the lead 35-33.
In the fourth, the Arabians carried a 39-37 lead before a layup by Herron and a Newcomb baseline jumper supplied the Dragons’ largest lead of the quarter 41-39.
The Dragons had a chance to pad the lead, but a missed 1-and-1 free throw led to Dwiggins’ clutch trey, setting the stage for a tense final minute.
“I know they’re disappointed, and I’m extremely disappointed. You just don’t get those opportunities all the time, and when you do get them, it stinks when you don’t capitalize for a second year in a row,” Gizzi said. “It’s a game of runs, but we had four opportunities to win that game. Free throws, defensive stop, defensive stop and a layup.”