NEW PALESTINE — In one momentum-swinging 40-second span of the New Palestine boys basketball opener against Jennings County Wednesday, Dragons forward Michael Morris scored nine points.
In less than a minute, he registered more points than any other New Palestine player accounted for in the game.
It was part of a career-high 37-point effort by Morris to lift his inexperienced team to a 58-55 victory.
“The first game, you’ll have jitters, especially with only two starters returning,” Morris said of the Dragons, who also graduated key bench players from last year’s 17-7 sectional championship squad. “We kind of had to get in sync.
“Good thing we played good defense because our offense wasn’t that great in the first half. Our defense kept us in it and the second half we kind of came out and found our groove.”
More accurately, it was Morris in the groove. The senior notched 26 points in the second half to rally New Palestine from a deficit that was as large as eight points.
Jennings County (0-1) harassed the Dragons from the start and built a second-quarter lead of 22-14 as the home team was on its way to an 18-turnover night. The Panthers led 24-21 at the break and 36-33 at the end of the third quarter, with Morris responsible for keeping the Dragons within reach.
“I think the word I used in the first quarter was ‘frazzled,’” New Palestine coach Adam Barton said. “Everything was going so fast and nobody looked comfortable with it and we really didn’t calm down. We really didn’t relax with the ball, ever.”
Sensing his team’s need, Morris was more aggressive as the game went on, notching, in order, four, seven, 10 and 16 points per quarter.
The New Palestine big man, who averaged 15 points last season, got an assist from Jennings County to start the fourth quarter.
Fourteen seconds into the final quarter, Morris hit a 3-pointer to make the score 36-36.
On the Dragons’ next trip down the floor, Morris got the ball deep under the basket and started to rise up for a dunk. Instead, he was fouled hard, and the officials whistled Jennings County’s Johnny Scruggs for an intentional foul, giving New Palestine two free throws and possession. Jennings County coach Mike Broughton disagreed so vehemently that he was given a technical. That put Morris at the line for four total free throws, and he sank three of them for a New Palestine 39-36 lead.
On New Palestine’s next possession, Morris drained another 3-pointer at the 7:20 mark of the quarter, making for a nine-point blitz that permanently swung the game in the Dragons’ favor.
The Panthers cut the Dragons’ 42-36 lead to 52-50 with less than two minutes remaining, but Solomon Haynes made four of six free throws down the stretch to stave off the visitors.
Haynes finished with six points — tied with Brandon Jonas for second on the team behind Morris’ 37 points.
“We’re better than that and we’re more rounded than that,” said Barton, who used nine players in the first quarter. “I think we have nine kids who can move in and out of the ballgame. I don’t know if it will happen in the first quarter every time, but there are nine varsity basketball players there that can compete with anybody. I have a lot of confidence in our options.”
Morris finished 11-of-19 from the field and 12-of-15 from the free throw line, including 7-of-10 from the field in the second half and 9-of-12 from the charity stripe.
The rest of the Dragons shot 6-of-25 from the field in the game and 7-of-16 from the free throw line.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m shooting too much,” Morris said. “I’m not really a selfish player, but I guess when I’m on I take as many shots as I can.
“I tried to take it to the basket more as the game went on. The kid guarding me, I knew he couldn’t stay in front of me so I took it to the basket and found the open guys when I could and everything was working out and I was knocking down shots.”
Jennings County 6-9 junior center Brad Hunt led the Panthers with 18 points and sophomore swingman Caleb Elder added 15 points.
The 6-5 Elder was a factor defensively, deflecting passes and forcing several turnovers early by the Dragons, who were outhustled at times by the veteran Panthers.
“I was kind of embarrassed in the first half because energy is what (Jennings County) had, and they really outworked us,” Barton said. “There are not many nights that we get outworked, but how many balls did they get the extra tip on or get the extra rebound on?
“We will get that fixed.”
On Wednesday, Morris provided the only fix the Dragons needed.
Barton recalled with amusement a conversation he had at the beginning of last season when he lamented that Morris wasn’t aggressive enough or wouldn’t take over a game.
“His freshman and sophomore year he was very tentative, and last year he shot the ball so well and we wanted him to shoot it even more,” the coach said. “And tonight he did. There were times tonight we were actually trying to get it out of his hands because he was tired.
“He carried us, there’s no doubt.”
Notes: Jonas had a team-high seven rebounds. ... The last four New Palestine-Jennings County games have been decided by a total of nine points, with the Dragons winning three of the four games. … New Palestine will host New Castle (1-0) Saturday. The Trojans beat Blue River Valley 89-38 in their season-opener. … New Palestine won the JV game Wednesday 52-40, paced by Duke Blackwell (13 points) and Kevin Riley (10 points).