INDIANAPOLIS — There weren’t tears in their eyes. It was fire.
Minutes after losing to top-ranked Pike 42-34 in the Class 4A Regional 3 semifinals on Saturday, the New Palestine girls basketball team and coaches gained a whole new perspective while at Decatur Central High School.
Not only did they belong, they could have won.
An afterthought by many before the opening tip, the unranked Dragons (18-7) played like anything but, trailing by no more than 11 points throughout and pulling within three late before coming up short against the 2016-17 state runner-up Red Devils.
“We should have won,” New Palestine junior guard Haley Harrison remarked. “We should have won.”
Harrison wasn’t the only one repeating those same four words. It was the consensus, and rightfully so.
The Dragons led the Red Devils (25-1), who later lost to Warren Central in the regional final, early in the opening quarter 6-4. They faced a manageable 10-6 deficit entering the second stanza and were down 19-10 by halftime.
Pike’s lead grew to 21-10 in the beginning of the third quarter and later 31-20 in the first few minutes of the fourth, but the Red Devils couldn’t truly shake the Dragons at any point.
Harrison finished with a game-high 11 points for New Palestine, while Megan Jolly, Leah Seib, Tatum Biddle and Emma Grable all chipped in five points apiece.
“We just put it all out there,” Jolly said. “We knew if we played hard we could beat them. If someone hit a shot, we tried to get on them and get a steal and make a stop.”
The Dragons were fierce and unafraid, even when the Red Devils attempted to charge ahead with a lengthy run. New Palestine’s defense came out undeterred and unfazed by the numbers Pike routinely averaged this season.
En route to winning its eighth sectional title in program history, Pike carried a 14-game winning streak into the regional tournament with an average of 64.2 points scored a contest.
The Dragons’ defense held them to nearly 20 points below the norm, and a rotation of Biddle, Jolly, Michaela Jones and others inflicted the damage against Pike’s top scorers.
Angel Baker, one of the state’s top scoring seniors, was capped at eight points and fouled out of the game. She was averaging 21.7 points a game.
The Red Devils were led by 10-point efforts from Mikia Keith and Michaela White. The latter typically contributed 15.0 points on average, but similar to junior Kinnidy Garrard, who was posting 11.5 points and 10.4 rebounds, weren’t able to replicate their customary productions.
Garrard finished with four points and four rebounds against the Dragons.
“It takes a lot of effort to keep (Baker) to eight points, and she didn’t have her best game either. I’ve seen her take over games, but some of that was our defense,” New Palestine head coach Sarah Gizzi said. “Sometimes that’s part of upsetting a good team. You catch them on a day when they’re not as good as they can be and you make it worse by keeping it close.”
Their approach kept them optimistic, despite facing Pike’s high-level press and having numerous shots blocked and challenged inside the paint.
“What we did in the first quarter was hang, so the girls felt like they were in it. We had not scored consistently throughout the season, so we felt like it wasn’t as bad of a matchup as some people thought it would be,” Gizzi said. “We felt like we have a couple of really good on-the-ball defenders.”
They have some opportunistic scorers, too, and they stepped up when needed as Seib, the team’s leading scorer at 14.0 points per game, struggled with foul trouble. Seib posted five points and eight rebounds.
“We’re really confident in our defense, so while you’re adjusting, if you can hold a team and get comfortable, then you give yourself a shot,” Gizzi said.
Down 33-25, the Dragons began to chip away, making their push and cutting the deficit to 35-30 after one of Harrison’s three 3-pointers. Another trey by Harrison with 1:22 left narrowed the gap to 37-33.
“I was like, we got this. The adrenaline was pumping through all of us, and I thought we could pull it out, but in the end they just pulled through,” Harrison said.
Jolly buried the front end of a pair of free throws with 43.4 seconds remaining to make it a 37-34 game, but the Red Devils escaped by converting 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch.
“As the game went on they believed more,” Gizzi said. “I told them, ‘Let’s cut the lead. Win or lose, we’re cutting this lead and we’re making it interesting.’ And that’s what I’m most proud of and their rebounding was phenomenal. Our No. 1 goal was to limit them to one shot.”
Now, after getting their first crack at a regional since 2004, the Dragons want more than one and with all but one player returning to the roster in 2018-19, it’s not out of the question.
“I might need 48 hours before I can think about that because right now I’m ticked off,” Gizzi remarked. “I told the girls we’re not (coming here) to participate. We’re not (coming here) for everybody to say, ‘great job little, tiny New Pal. We’re (coming here) to make some noise. We’re (coming here) to win.
“I was really proud that we were able to end on a toughness upswing. We told them, now we have a new expectation. Even after this, they’re upset that they lost, but they want to go out and do this.”