NEW PALESTINE — The past two Center Grove-New Palestine tilts were thrillers that went down to the final seconds.
Through halftime, Friday night’s matchup between the Trojans and Dragons looked to be headed that way too.
Then the third quarter came along.
Up 39-33 through two quarters, CG outscored host NP 23-12 in the third frame to pull away and hand the Dragons a 71-54 defeat in their 2013-14 season opener.
New Palestine struggled mightily with Center Grove’s full-court press to begin the second half and could not stop the Trojans’ top two playmakers, Tyler Bryant and Michael Benkert, who combined for 58 points.
CG (2-1) edged NP in a pair of nail-biters last season, the first being a 95-89 victory on Nov. 30, 2012. The last Trojan triumph, a 71-70 decision at the 2013 Sectional 13 tournament, ended the Dragons’ season and their hopes for back-to-back-to-back sectional championships.
Friday, Adam Barton’s crew held the size advantage on paper, but fell victim to the visitors’ desire to turn the game into a track meet.
Center Grove’s relentless irritation of New Palestine ball handlers resulted in 10 second-half turnovers and flustered the hosts out of its halfcourt offense.
The Trojans began the third quarter on a 9-2 run, forcing the normally mild-tempered NP coach to call a timeout and vociferously remind his players of what they spent all week practicing.
“If you have a 7-footer (Seth Cox) on your team, teams are going to try and change the pace of the game. They’re going to try and speed it up and run to take him out of the game. I was frustrated with our guards that, No. 1, they wouldn’t get to a spot where they could even look at Seth — they never got the ball down the court well enough to do that,” Barton said. “And No. 2, I was frustrated with them in our press break that they kept looking backwards when we talked all week about how their press is up the floor.
“We had options down the floor. We were just very tentative in our guard spots as far as our passing. We had discussed it politely a few times, so I decided to try a different way.”
Barton had to call timeout again after Center Grove stretched the margin to 17 at 58-41 after a basket by Benkert with 2:39 remaining in the third. But, it was too late, and the Trojans spent much of the final frame cooling their jets — or taking their air out of the ball on offense.
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