Holding On: Dragons protect lead late, fend off Royals

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New Palestine’s Isabella Gizzi drives past Eastern Hancock’s Addison Trittipo on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. ( Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

NEW PALESTINE — It had been four years since the New Palestine Dragons last played Hancock County rival Eastern Hancock in girls basketball.

On Tuesday night, both programs made up for lost time.

The host Class 4A Dragons built what appeared to be an insurmountable 22-point lead by the third quarter on Senior Night, but the 2A Royals roared back to cut the deficit to seven before falling 64-52.

New Palestine junior Isabella Gizzi, who is only the third girls player in program history to reach 1,000 points, added to her career total with a game-high 31 points (for 1,041 in her career), and the Dragons converted 15 of 17 free throws in the fourth quarter to secure their second win in three games.

Before the Dragons (11-8) defended their home court against the Royals (13-4), New Palestine honored their seniors, including Anna Ackerman, a 5-foot-10 forward, who is out this season with an injury.

The uncontested opening tip went to Ackerman, who dressed exclusively for the game, and the senior buried the night’s first bucket with an undefended layup. Eastern Hancock tied the game immediately afterwards with an uncontested bucket by Caroline Stapleton.

“It was hard. It made me happy-sad because we really miss Anna,” New Palestine coach Sarah Gizzi said. “It was just really good to see her in a uniform and have her basketball shoes back on. Shari (Doud) was gracious enough to let us do that, so that was nice.”

From that point on the pleasantries faded as the Dragons put together runs of 5-0 and 9-2 to take a 29-22 halftime lead. In the third quarter, the Dragons went on a 12-0 run with six points from Isabella Gizzi to lead 41-22 and later 45-23.

“We ended up going with a five guard lineup and our speed showed in the fourth. We went with a bigger lineup early because we thought we’d have the mismatch, but they did a good job of defending our size,” Doud said. “So, we decided to go more guard heavy, and as you saw in the fourth quarter that was a benefit for us.”

With a starter over 6-foot, the Royals tried to go inside to 6-1 sophomore Ruby White, but the Dragons smaller lineup (no player taller than 5-7) held its ground.

Alaina Miller had 16 points for the Dragons, while Rachel Kelley added seven and Vivian Miller had six. Gizzi had three steals, five assists and eight rebounds. Vivian Miller finished with six rebounds.

Turnovers hurt the Dragons, however, as the Royals recorded a 24-point fourth quarter as New Palestine lost possession eight times in the frame and 21 times overall.

The Dragons posted back-to-back 21-point frames in the second and third, while holding Eastern Hancock to 28 points after thre quarters. New Palestine led 50-28 before the fourth before the Royals made it 57-50 following a 9-0 run and a pair of free throws by Sammie Bolding, who scored 16 points.

Grace Stapleton had a team-high 17 points and five rebounds. Sammie Bolding had five steals and four rebounds.

“I was not happy with that, but they hit some nice shots. I thought my girls just lacked some defensive intensity there for a little while. We had a few bad turnovers,” Gizzi said. “Luckily, we had some good free throws to close it out.”

The Royals sliced the deficit behind a 14-point second half by Bolding, while Grace Stapleton had eight points in the final two quarters.

“This is a gritty group,” EH head coach Shari Doud said. “We have to battle through some of these games. These kids don’t quit. I’m always proud when they grit their teeth, dig their heels in and go to work. It’s just one of those nights. Some of those nights we’ve come back and won.”

The Royals were unable to complete the comeback, dropping their third straight game.

“We really emphasized rebounding because they kind of killed us in the first half. They are bigger than us, which everyone is, but I thought Vivian Miller and Allie Blum really stepped up and they boxed out more,” Gizzi said. “Our guards did a better job of going out and securing rebounds.”

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