MUNCIE – Blaine Nunnally isn’t the only one smiling now.
New Palestine’s boys basketball team won its first sectional championship since 2020 Saturday.
The Dragons, ranked No. 14 in the state’s Indiana Basketball Coaches Association poll, beat two-time defending tournament champion and biggest rival, Mt. Vernon, 71-57 in the Class 4A Sectional 9 championship at Muncie Fieldhouse.
New Palestine’s last title also came at the historic fieldhouse, which was built in 1928. In 2020, they beat the host Muncie Central Bearcats in the championship game.
Nunnally is one of six seniors on the Dragons team, and the only one that was part of the last sectional title.
“We were (in the fieldhouse) the Saturday morning after our last regular season game for our sectional practice,” Nunnally said after Saturday’s victory over the Marauders. “Coach (Trent Whitaker) asked me, ‘How did it feel the last time we cut down the nets?’ You smile, because you don’t know what to say, nothing describes the feeling that (we are all) having right now. To do it with the guys you’ve been working hard with all season long, and all the hours in the gym, it’s an unbelievable feeling. I told (my teammates) they’d never forget this moment for the rest of their lives. I certainly won’t. I remember every second from (the 2020 sectional championship game) from cutting down the nets, everything. It’s a surreal feeling.”
The defending champs didn’t go down without a fight.
Mt. Vernon was considered a surprise team this entire season. The Marauders graduated all but one varsity player from last year’s championship squad, but still finished the year 16-9, which included a 58-57 win over No. 11 Anderson to get to Saturday’s title game.
The Marauders starting lineup was made up of three freshmen and a sophomore, along with the lone vet, Eli Bridenthal.
On Saturday, Mt. Vernon got off to a great start, leading by as much as nine points in the first half, but in the second quarter, Nunnally kicked it up a notch.
After going scoreless in the first, the Dragons’ leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, had 13 of his game-high 22 points in the second period.
New Palestine went from down five, 16-11, after one period, to trailing 30-29 at halftime.
In the first two quarters, the teams had seven lead changes and three times. In the second half, it was all Dragons. New Palestine outscored Mt. Vernon 21-8 in the third quarter.
“He’s a senior, playing in the sectional championship. We were the defending champs. We beat them last year and he was very determined even though we tried to take away his strengths,” Mt. Vernon interim head coach Nate Bingham said of Nunnally. “He was very determined and did a really good job of getting paint touches, kicking out to open teammates and a good job of finishing around the basketball, as well.”
It wasn’t just Nunnally that was a thorn in the Marauders’ side.
The Dragons showed that the Marauders weren’t the only ones with some very talented young players. Two-thirds of New Palestine’s third-quarter points came from sophomores Julius Gizzi, Moses Haynes and Ben Slagley. For the game, the trio combined for 28 points.
With the Dragons leading 36-34 with 4:15 remaining in the third, Haynes and Gizzi hit back-to-back 3s. Gizzi had another 3 later in the quarter to give New Palestine a double-digit lead, 47-37. Haynes scored with time winding down in the quarter and drew a foul. He added the free throw for a 50-38 Dragon advantage to close the period.
“Senior heavy, these young guys, they came up,” Nunnally said. “Julius (Gizzi) hit a couple of 3s. (Moses Haynes) ball-handling and he found me for a crucial And-one. It really sparked us. Ben (Slagley) played strong in the post.”
Haynes’s nine-point outing was one point shy of his career best, a 10-point performance in January against Lawrence North.
“I was a little bit nervous when I first walked out, but the coaches had confidence in me and I know the older guys have confidence in me. The nerves go away after that,” Haynes said.
“Blaine did what he does, and got us back into it. With us being down nine and Moses stepping up to cut it to six in the second quarter, that’s impressive,” Whitaker said. “Julius came back after a rough first half. The kid hits shots, that’s what he does. Ben’s been here before and he does great work around the rim. The three of those kids are going to be battling those youngsters from Mt. Vernon for a long time to come.”
Following Nunnally, Gizzi finished with 12. Senior forward Ian Stephens scored 10. Slagley had nine points and seven rebounds.
“We talked before the game that we weren’t nervous about the game, we were nervous about it being our last game,” Stephens said. “We all agreed on that. We knew it could be our last so we’re going to fight like crazy to keep playing.”
Frosh Luke Ertel led Mt. Vernon with 20 points. He had 14 in the first half. Frosh Julien Smith scored 12 points, eight coming in the first two quarters. Bridenthal scored nine in his final game.
“I told them when they got in (the locker room), there’s not one person in here that should have their head down,” Bingham said. “There’s not one person, other than the guys in that locker room, that believed we’d win as many games as we did this year. This one hurts, for sure, especially for our seniors. We do return four of five starters and the majority of our program and it was a good learning experience for us, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
Overall, it’s the Dragons 10th boys basketball sectional title.
“It’s unreal. It’s hard to believe. It’s an amazing moment,” New Palestine senior Eian Roudebush said. “We just trust each other. We love each other and we love playing together. It’s hard to beat us when we’re hustling everywhere. Eventually, we knew the shots were going to start falling and we were going to keep playing defense the way we were.”
Since New Palestine and Mt. Vernon returned to play in the same sectional in 2018, one or the other has won the tournament.
New Palestine won in 2019, 2020 and 2023. Mt. Vernon won in 2018, 2021 and 2022. Four of the six championship games (2018, 2019, 2022 and 2023) the Hancock County rivals have played for title game.
“It’s two basketball teams that play hard and do things the right way,” Whitaker said. “We have a lot of respect for the Mt. Vernon program. Coach Bingham coming into a difficult situation and getting those kids to rally, to do what they did, honestly, is impressive. I told him that. They have great athletes and great players. We have great athletes and great players. You’re going to have great games, that’s what we’ve had for six years.”
The Dragons will take on No. 7 Brownsburg (20-4) in the Class 4A Regional 5 championship at 1 p.m. Saturday at Southport Fieldhouse. The winner will advance to the South Semi-State.
New Palestine 71, Mt. Vernon 57
New Palestine (23-2): Ian Stephens 3 3-4 10, Eian Roudebush 2 2-2 7, Ben Slagley 4 1-1 9, Bryant Nunnally 1 0-0 2, Blaine Nunnally 9 3-5 22, Julius Gizzi 3 4-4 12, Moses Haynes 3 1-1 9, Kendall Hill 0 0-0 0, Brady Armstrong 0 0-0 0, Keagan Harrison 0 0-0 0, Charles Guhl 0 0-0 0. Totals: 25 14-17 71.
Mt. Vernon (16-9): Eli Bridenthal 2 4-4 9, Tanner Teschendorf 1 4-4 7, R’mani Wells 0 0-0 0, Julien Smith 5 1-1 12, Luke Ertel 6 5-7 20, Adam Hackett 1 2-2 4, Brady Fitzgerald 1 0-0 2, Conner Schank 0 0-0 0, Daylon King 1 0-0 3, Charlie Cross 0 0-0 0, Aden Daugherty 0 0-0 0, Elijah Parra 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 16-18 57.
3-point goals: New Palestine 7 (Gizzi 2, Haynes 2, Stephens, Roudebush, Bl. Nunnally); Mt. Vernon 7 (Ertel 3, Bridenthal, Teschendorf, Smith, King)
Class 4A Regional 5 Championship
Teams: No. 14 New Palestine (23-2) vs. No. 7 Brownsburg (20-4)
At stake: Winner advances to Class 4A South Semi-State, along with Regional 6, 7, and 8 champions, with site and opponent TBA.
Site: Southport High School
Time: 1 p.m.
Admission: $10. Children age 5 and younger admitted free.