Michael Morris remembers the finals of last year’s Hancock County Tournament well.
New Palestine trailed Mt. Vernon 25-23 at half and 34-27 in the third quarter before a 16-1, Morris-fueled blitz lifted the Dragons to a 61-55 win and their second straight county crown.
“I was on fire. I was feeling it,” recalled Morris, who notched a then career-high 26 points in the victory on the Marauders’ home floor.
Less than two months later, New Palestine throttled Mt. Vernon 61-38 on the Marauders’ senior night.
“Not much really,” said MV senior guard Anthony Burnett of what details he recalls of those games. “I can only think of when they beat us by (23) on our home floor.”
The past four years, Mt. Vernon and New Palestine have carried the banner for Hancock County boys basketball.
Between the schools, a sectional championship has been captured in each of the past four seasons, with the Marauders winning one (2010) and the Dragons taking three (2009, 2011-12), and the programs have combined to win every county tourney since 2004.
Among the county statistical leaders this season, an MV or NP player fills in the top two places of each major category.
But, it’s the differences that set the teams apart. And when they meet at 11:30 a.m. today in Fortville in the semifinals of the county tournament, two sets of philosophies will clash.
“We’re complete opposites, Burnett offered. “It’s going to be a battle between who does what best.”
Coach Steve Lynch’s black-and-gold outfit (6-0) is ranked third in Class 3A and second among 3A schools in the Sagarin ratings. The Marauders have five victories against 4A schools, including a 52-49 triumph at Hamilton Southeastern (then ranked sixth in 4A) on Nov. 30.
MV’s conquest of HSE was noteworthy for two reasons. One, the visiting Royals dispatched the Marauders 67-39 last season. Two, HSE’s previous home loss was an 83-79 setback to Pike on Feb. 15, 2011. In fact, the Royals’ last home defeat to a non-4A school came to Muncie Central on Feb. 3, 2007.
The root of the Marauders’ unbeaten start can be found with its unyielding defense.
On Feb. 21, Westfield topped MV 59-52. That was the last time an opponent tallied more than 50 points versus the Marauder defense, which is allowing 43.3 points per game this season.
In wins over HSE, Pendleton Heights, New Castle and Mississinewa, Mt. Vernon forced each team into a season-low in points scored.
Mt. Vernon’s defensive wall, predicated on a 1-2-2 half-court trap and a 3-2 zone, faces a stiff test versus a New Palestine (6-2) offense that may be content to shoot over it.
Three Dragons (Ryan Curry, Justin Ikerd and Morris) have sunk at least 18 3-pointers and all three are converting at least 41.3 percent of their tries beyond the arc.
That torrid shooting has NP scoring 67 points, the highest per-game average in the program since the 1995-96 unit registered 68 ppg en route to a 19-3 mark.
Despite the loss of key seniors Reid Clark, Brandon Collins, Josh Penley and Wade Whitaker, the Dragons have thrived, trading in a less efficient defense — the current squad is giving up 6.5 more ppg than the 2011-12 unit — for a more explosive offense that has sealed the holes left by the departed 2012 class.
The continued improvement of Morris has accounted for a portion of NP’s offensive surge. The senior has elevated his scoring (15.3-19.9), rebounding (6.2-7.3), assist (0.8-1.7) and 3-point conversion (44.7-46.2 percent) totals from a season ago, when he was named Hancock County Player of the Year.
Senior Solomon Haynes, a part-time starter in 2011-12, is averaging 3.1 assists while assuming Penley’s role as lane penetrator.
Brandon Jonas has gone from reserve to the county’s second-leading rebounder at 7.4 rpg, an area Clark finished second in last season. Jonas, a sophomore, has been especially effective on the offensive glass, where he’s corralled 18 of his 52 boards.
Then there’s Ryan Curry, the sophomore guard who is shooting 46 percent from the field, 43.1 percent from 3 and 89.5 percent from the foul line. A year after starting for the junior varsity team, Curry is averaging 12.1 points on the Dragons’ first unit.
“I don’t know if we’re better, but we’re certainly not any worse,” said Morris of his current squad. “We lost four seniors, but everyone has been stepping up and filling their roles.”
NP hasn’t scored less than 58 points all season, and last totaled 50 points or less on Nov. 26, 2011, a 53-44 defeat to New Castle.
MV boasts the county’s top three pickpockets in senior guard CJ Coleman (3.8 steals per game), Burnett (2.8) and senior forward Stephen Turner (2.2), and will use its pressure defense to confound and confuse NP, who have 17 more turnovers than assists.
Morris insisted the Dragons will be ready for any defense the Marauders throw at them.
“I think they’re going to have a tough time defending us,” explained Morris, who scored a career-best 37 points in a win over Jennings County on Nov. 21. “We’ve got shooters that can shoot over the zone and we can give them matchup problems if they play man.”
Offensively, Mt. Vernon is averaging 55.8 points, its highest total in three seasons.
Coleman is the county’s second-leading scorer at 18.8 ppg, and is also the area’s best 3-point marksman (59.1 percent).
Turner is atop the county charts in numerous statistical categories, ranking in first in rebounds (8.2) and field-goal percentage (66), second in free-throw percentage (86.8) and third in points (16.5).
Burnett, a key cog in the football team’s run to the regional final in the fall, has seen his scoring average sink to 4.3 ppg from 9.1 last year — a stat he attributed to less gym time following football season — but has used his court vision to pace the county with 5.5 assists per game.
“It should switch around soon,” said Burnett of his scoring output.
With two wins Saturday — the finals are slated for a 7:45 p.m. start at Greenfield-Central — Lynch can equal NP coach Adam Barton’s mark of four county championships since the competition was restarted in 2003. (No county tournament was played from 1968-2002). Greenfield-Central (0-6) will visit Eastern Hancock (2-5) in the other morning semifinal.
“We look forward to these games all year. Yeah, we play other games, but all the county games are marked on our schedule,” Morris commented. “Most of the time they’re great games and it’s fun to play in them.”
Morris and the Dragons would love nothing more than to spoil the Marauders’ perfect start, which would add gusto to the rivalry’s customary bragging rights.
“Mt. Vernon is getting all the headlines. They’re ranked third (in Class 3A),” Morris said. “Hopefully we can show them who the best team in the county really is.”
CJ Coleman, junior point guard
Season average: 18.8 ppg.
Season-high: 26 vs. Whiteland on Nov. 20.
Shooting numbers: 52.6 percent from field, 59.1 percent from 3 and 69 percent from free-throw line.
Michael Morris, senior forward
Season average: 19.9 ppg.
Season-high: 37 vs. Jennings County on Nov. 21.
Shooting numbers: 51.9 percent from field, 46.3 percent from 3 and 75.7 percent from free-throw line.
Stephen Turner, senior forward
Season average: 8.2 rpg.
Season-high: 11 vs. Whiteland on Nov. 20 and Hamilton Southeastern on Nov. 30.
Brandon Jonas, sophomore forward
Season average: 7.4 rpg.
Season-high: 10 vs. Westfield on Dec. 14 and Franklin Central on Dec. 15.
Anthony Burnett, senior guard
Season average: 5.5 apg.
Season-high: 9 vs. Whiteland on Nov. 20.
Solomon Haynes, senior point guard
Season average: 3.1 apg.
Season-high: 6 vs. Center Grove on Nov. 30.
BY THE NUMBERS
2: New Palestine has won last two meetings vs. Mt. Vernon.
5: Mt. Vernon win streak in series before last season.
67: New Palestine’s per-game offensive average.
43.3: Mt. Vernon’s per-game defensive average.
0: Times New Palestine has been held to less than 58 points this season.
0: Times Mt. Vernon has allowed more than 50 points this season.