The New Palestine boys basketball team climbed the ladder Saturday night as a sectional champion after winning a 54-53 thriller over host Muncie Central in the sectional final.
Steele Brasfield drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner with 30 seconds left to give New Palestine a 54-51 lead. Muncie Central responded with a driving basket. The Bearcats had two more shots to win the game in the final 22 seconds, but the Dragons forced back-to-back stops on both possessions to seal the victory.
“Maximus (Gizzi) gets so much attention, but when he turned the corner and had Steele in the corner, there was no hesitation,” coach Trent Whitaker said. “He made a great pass and Steele didn’t hesitate. He knocked it down.
“I’m incredibly proud of every single kid that’s in our program. To start out 2-8 and battle back and just believe in one another. That’s something we talk about – family. These kids bought in. We came to Muncie Central and beat a great Muncie Central team. This is awesome.”
New Palestine advances to the March 14 Southport regional, where the Dragons will face No. 3 Lawrence North (25-2) at 10 a.m. No. 9 Brownsburg (21-4) will face Pike (17-9) in the second semifinal, with the title game slated for 8 p.m. The Dragons were the runner-up to Ben Davis in last year’s regional.
On Brasfield’s shot that gave the Dragons the lead for good, Gizzi drove off a screen set by Dawson Eastes down the right side of the lane, got to the block and found Brasfield open in the corner. The ball rolled around the rim, bounced up slightly, then dropped through the hoop.
“I know Steele can hit that,” Gizzi said. “He hits that every day in practice. When I turned around, it didn’t want to go in. It rolled all the way around and went in.”
Gizzi scored 16 points to lead the Dragons. Eastes added 14 points, while Brasfield scored eight of his 10 in the second half, hitting two big 3-pointers.
The game was a back-and-forth affair from the opening tip. NP attacked the basket often during a 9-0 first-quarter run, with Gizzi scoring five points and Eastes four, to take a 9-4 lead. Muncie Central rallied to tie the game at 11 by the first quarter’s end.
The lead swapped hands several times in the second quarter before a 3-pointer and two free throws by Gizzi gave NP the lead. NP took a 28-25 advantage into the break. Eastes and Eric Roudebush scored in the opening seconds of the third quarter to push the lead to 32-25 – the biggest lead for either team in the game. Muncie Central rallied, cutting the lead to 35-32 on seven straight points by K.J. Jackson, when Brasfield hit his first 3-pointer to extend it again. Jackson hit a late shot and Stafford a 3-pointer to cut the Dragons’ lead to 38-37 going into the fourth quarter.
The final eight minutes would be a classic, with each team hitting big shots.
Muncie Central scored the first three points of the fourth quarter on an extended possession, going up 40-38. NP tied the game on a basket by Gizzi. A free throw by the Bearcats’ Alonzo Golston sent NP to a 41-40 deficit. Eric Roudebush drew a charge, then Gizzi drew a foul and hit both free throws to re-take the lead for the Dragons at 42-41, but Muncie Central’s Dylan Stafford answered with a 3-pointer to put the Bearcats up 44-42. Blaine Nunnally immediately answered with a triple from the top of the key to re-take the lead at 45-44.
Gizzi hit a free throw and Eastes followed with two more to push the edge to 48-44. Again, Muncie Central answered with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to one, but Brasfield followed with two foul shots to push the edge to 50-47. Another free throw by Gizzi made it a 51-47 game, but Stafford hit another step-back 3-pointer from 25 feet to cut the lead to one. NP missed two free throws on the ensuing possession and Jackson drew a foul. He hit one of the two free throws with just over a minute to play to tie the game, setting the stage for Brasfield’s 3-pointer that gave NP the lead for good.
“We had resilience tonight,” Eastes said. “We had fire. We wanted to be the first team in New Palestine history to win conference and sectional. That’s our goal every year. To do it is amazing.”
In addition to the three double-figure scorers, Nunnally added seven points. Roudebush scored six and Matthew Brown one.
Roudebush also had a tremendous defensive game, holding Muncie Central leading scorer Victor Young to three points – 15 below his average. Young hit a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to cut NP’s lead to 48-47, but fouled out immediately after.
“Eric Roudebush doesn’t get a lot of pub as far as scoring, but defensively, he shut down Young tonight,” Whitaker said.
The Dragons clinched the ninth sectional title in the program’s history, joining championships won in 1957, 1980, 1989, 1997, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018. It was the program’s third championship in Class 4A, and marked the first time NP had won two titles in the same year. The Dragons also won the Hoosier Heritage Conference title this season, their first in seven years.
NP started the season 2-8, but the eighth loss was an overtime defeat at Shenandoah – one of the top teams in Class 2A. The next time out, NP beat Delta – at the time ranked in Class 3A – and that propelled a second half of the season that saw NP go 12-4 the rest of the way .
“This feels amazing, especially the way we started the season, all the ups and downs and battling back,” Gizzi said, adding of the Shenandoah and Delta games in early January, “those games helped us a ton. They helped us see and visualize what we could do. They definitely shifted the momentum of the season.”
Stafford led Muncie Central with 12 points – all on 3-pointers, with nine coming in the game’s last 8:10. Jackson scored 10 second-half points, while Da’Mar Woods-Hoskins scored 10 first-quarter points. The Bearcats hit eight 3-pointers, but the Dragons used their strength inside, attacking the basket throughout the game for a number of inside shots and 29 free throw attempts. NP was 16-29 from the line as a team.
The Dragons head into the Southport regional with a 14-12 record and assured of their third consecutive winning season. Whitaker becomes the second coach to lead the Dragons to multiple sectional championships, joining Adam Barton, who led the 2009, 2011 and 2012 teams. Gizzi, Eastes, Roudebush and Logan Hovis see their senior years as sectional champs.
“This was an incredible night for Dragon basketball,” Whitaker said. “I’m glad to be a little part of the history here.”