Finishing Strong: Dragons regroup, capture third at Lebanon Holiday Tournament

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New Palestine’s Ian Stephens goes up to score against Evansville North at the Lebanon Boys Holiday Classic on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

LEBANON — The New Palestine Dragons experienced a little bit of everything during their two-day Lebanon Holiday Classic Tournament appearance.

On Tuesday night, the Dragons reached milestone heights — hitting the 90-point mark for a fourth time since 2000 — behind a career-high 27 points from Ian Stephens to win decisively, 93-62, over Indianapolis Metropolitan.

Less than 24 hours later on Wednesday came the tournament semifinal letdown and a tough loss to host Lebanon, 63-59, in the morning session despite a furious comeback after trailing by 21 points.

By tournament’s end, the Dragons (6-3) regrouped and capped their three-game challenge exactly how it began by winning 63-52 against Evansville North to finish third at 2-1.

“We played 12 quarters here in Lebanon, and we played 10 of them really, really well,” New Palestine boys basketball head coach Trent Whitaker said. “Unfortunately, in the first half against Lebanon, here this morning, we just didn’t come out ready to play. We were up 7-2, but then we took some time off. Honestly, we had 10 bad minutes, but other than that it was a good tournament.”

Minus the Dragons’ 10-minute tournament lull, there was substantial progress and growth achieved in scoring, depth and camaraderie, New Palestine senior Steele Brasfield remarked afterwards.

“It’s always good coming out of a tournament like this with a winning record. Obviously, we wanted to go 3-0 and win the whole thing, but it’s a good time to bond with the team and it builds chemistry. Sometimes, even today, we showed we can fill a new role with Ben Slagley getting a lot of minutes this week,” Brasfield said. “He looked good. He’s stepped up in practice and finally got his chance to play on the court, and he showed.”

Slagley, a freshman who stands 6-foot-4, posted four points in the tournament opener, but he followed up his varsity debut with five points against Lebanon and 10 in the third-place game against Evansville North.

He scored six points in the third quarter against Evansville North as the Dragons built a nine-point lead and extended the margin by 10 points in the fourth before winning by 11.

“Ben got his chance this morning, and he took advantage of it. The more he gains confidence, the kids have confidence in him and the more I have confidence in him, then he’ll definitely make that jump,” Whitaker said. “He’s doing a great job.”

Stephens’ momentum is gaining traction as he easily surpassed his 11.5 points per game average.

In the tournament opener, Stephens, a junior, set a career-best, while Brasfield, who is averaging 20.2 ppg, added 22 points in the win.

The Dragons’ 93-point performance against Indianapolis Metropolitan marked the program’s highest total since posting 96 in a victory against Hoosier Heritage Conference foe Shelbyville on Feb. 6, 2015.

“I think, we take a lot away from this in a positive way more than a negative way because we were 2-1 and beat a good Evansville North team and a good Indianapolis Metropolitan team, so we only lost by a small amount to Lebanon. I think we come away with a lot of positives,” Stephens said.

New Palestine junior Blaine Nunnally had 14 points for the Dragons in the tournament’s quarterfinal round, burying four 3-pointers, after missing two games due to injury.

Nunnally added a season-high 28 points against Lebanon for a team-high and had 12 points against Evansville North.

“Overall, I’m happy with the tournament. Ian Stephens played exceptional last night and then this afternoon,” Whitaker said. “Obviously, the goal is to win, but the other goal is to get some camaraderie. The kids enjoy it. It’s a different atmosphere, and we’re seeing teams from all parts of the state.”

Stephens was limited to three points against Lebanon, but he bounced back strong in the Dragons’ final game, posting a team-high 24 points with 16 from Brasfield.

Brasfield was second in scoring against Lebanon with 18 points, but they were crucial points with Lebanon taking a 21-point advantage in the second quarter.

New Palestine recorded the game’s first five points, but the Tigers went on a 20-5 run to lead 20-10 after the first quarter. Jake Burns paced the Tigers’ 3-point attack with 24 points overall and seven treys.

New Palestine charged back, however, and cut the deficit to three points in the final seconds with a 27-point fourth quarter but couldn’t reclaim the lead.

“Our kids didn’t quit, but unfortunately, we put ourselves in that situation, and they had to fight. But Lebanon did a great job,” Whitaker said. “They had a kid that hit seven 3s, and he was 5 of 26 on the year, so that’s a career day for that young man. Credit to him.”

The Dragons didn’t let the setback linger long, a pattern they’ve consistently showcased so far this season.

Following their 60-55 season-opening loss at Richmond on Nov. 24, the Dragons won three straight in response. After losing 48-37 at HHC rival New Castle — without Nunnally — on Dec. 17, the team beat Franklin Central in overtime 57-56 on the road Dec. 18 and won its second straight on Tuesday against Metropolitan.

“We can take a lot out of this. That game this morning, we just weren’t into it and not playing well and not playing are hardest and got beat,” Stephens said. “They’re a great team, but we just weren’t playing hard enough. We made sure to come back out, and we played even harder to win the (third-place) game. That was good.

“Blaine is back. He was gone for a couple of games, and we’re all starting to come together. We’re making good adjustments at halftime, and I think it’s all coming along.”

The timing is ideal with the Dragons resuming play on Jan. 7 at home against HHC foe Delta before heading to Southport on Jan. 8 and hosting another conference rival in Pendleton Heights on Jan. 14.

“We’re definitely making that turn. Everybody is together. We’ve played for a couple of games together now, so the chemistry is really there. We’re finding our roles with Ian becoming one of our best guys, Blaine coming back and getting healthy, so we’re feeling pretty good right now,” Brasfield said.

The Dragons are 1-1 in the HHC, which has them tied for third place in the standings with Greenfield-Central and behind both New Castle and Yorktown, who are second at 2-1. Mt. Vernon remains unbeaten at 3-0. The Dragons’ final HHC game is at Mt. Vernon on Feb. 18. They beat Greenfield-Central, 47-43, at home on Dec. 10.

“It’s always a goal for us at the beginning of the season to win conference and win a sectional. It all starts with the regular season. We’ve already dropped one that we feel we shouldn’t have dropped, so we basically can’t lose anymore,” Brasfield said. “That’s our goal. Not to lose another conference game.”

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