CONNERSVILLE — For a brief moment Saturday night, a mild panic washed over Sarah Gizzi.
Shortly after the final buzzer sounded inside the Connersville Spartan Bowl with her New Palestine girls basketball team victorious as Class 4A Sectional 9 champions, the realization sank in for the first-year head coach.
Formerly a two-time sectional champion at New Palestine — the last occurring in 1993 — and an Indiana All-Star in 1994, now, she was holding the clipboard and soon the scissors to cut down the net in celebration.
There was only one problem. She wasn’t sure how to do that exactly. More than familiar with slicing off a piece of the nylon as a keepsake in the past, she never had to finish the job.
Turning to her father, Bruce Haynes, an assistant coach with the team and a former head coach in his career, a few soothing words of wisdom were all she needed to put her mind at ease as her Dragons rushed the court to hoist the trophy.
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“Coaching with my dad has been amazing,” Gizzi said with a gleeful grin. “It’s been remarkable.”
The same can be said for the Dragons’ 2017-18 season.
After 14 years of trying, the New Palestine Dragons finally put an end to their championship drought, capturing the program’s fifth title all time with a 45-39 victory against rival Mt. Vernon in the sectional finals.
The Dragons used a tide-turning 12-1 run — that began late in the second quarter and stretched into the second half — to erase an early 15-12 deficit and claim their first sectional title since 2004.
Haley Harrison led the Dragons with 12 points in the sectional final, while Leah Seib had 11 points in a game New Palestine never trailed through the final 18 minutes en route to the program’s 500th win.
“This is huge. We’ve waited so long and we’ve worked so hard all season to get this,” New Palestine junior Katie Herron remarked while wiping away tears of joy. “We worked through everything. We knew every day at practice we had to push each other so much in order to get better. We knew one day it would all come together.”
After falling short of their Hoosier Heritage Conference championship aspirations this year, the Dragons (18-6, 5-2 HHC), who lost to the Marauders (11-13, 4-3 HHC) earlier this season, 60-47, on Dec. 12, avenged the past with consistency.
New Palestine shot 42 percent from the floor and were 16 of 27 from the free-throw line to build a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Megan Jolly was 9 of 14 from the foul line and Harrison went 4-for-4 to help secure the HHC runner-up Dragons’ three-game sweep at the Connersville Sectional.
On Tuesday night, New Palestine defeated the host Spartans 53-32 in the quarterfinals. Three days later, the Dragons upended co-HHC champion Greenfield-Central (10-13, 6-1 HHC) in the semifinals, 43-32, to setup a rematch in the sectional finals with Mt. Vernon.
Marking the first postseason meeting between the two programs since back-to-back clashes in 2004-05 and 2005-06, the Dragons won their second straight playoff game against the Marauders. New Palestine also prevailed 72-63 in 2006 when the two teams were 3A state tournament foes.
“It was very emotional to comeback and win,” Seib said. “Especially since they beat us in the regular season, we wanted to come back and get some revenge on them. It just gave us that extra push.”
The added incentive paid dividends for the Dragons as the game tightened in the fourth quarter when the Marauders cut their deficit to four and three points.
A pair of free throws by Sophie Williams, who finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds for Mt. Vernon, narrowed the gap 37-33 with 3:55 left in the game.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Lexi Shelton and Abby Worley sliced the Dragons’ lead to 42-39 with 41 seconds remaining.
Shelton scored a game-high 14 points, draining 3 of 5 jumpers from deep, while Sydnee Perry was disruptive on defense with five steals as the Marauders ramped up their full-court press in the fourth quarter.
“I knew I was going to have my hands full. Julie (Shelton) is a great coach and her girls play hard,” Gizzi said. “They hit some shots in the end to make it crazy, but we pulled through.”
With the game still hanging in the balance, Jolly, who dished out six assists, converted 3 of 4 free throws in the final 33.3 seconds to keep the Dragons on top.
“In the beginning I was just trying to play like it was a normal game and try not to think about it as a sectional game,” Jolly said. “And then we got to the end and the last quarter and then 40 seconds left and I was like, ‘oh, shoot, if we lose this, I’m probably going to cry for the rest of my life.’ So we had to win.”
Herron finished with eight points and Jolly had nine, which all came from the foul line where the Dragons were provided 15 more shooting opportunities than the Marauders’ 12 overall.
“We knew they weren’t going to let us go easily, but I really thought when we got in the bonus in the third quarter we were going to be able to pull away a little bit with free throws,” Dragons’ first-year head coach Sarah Gizzi said. “It was the scrappiest game, I think, we’ve played all year, and they knew it was on the line. They rose to the challenge.”
The Dragons advance to the Decatur Central Regional this coming Saturday, when they will play top-ranked Pike (24-1) in the semifinals at 10 a.m. Pike defeated No. 20 Ben Davis 50-45 to win the Sectional 11 title.
No. 17 Warren Central (16-7) and No. 15 Brownsburg (19-5) will play in the second regional semifinal at noon, with the championship set for 8 p.m.