Seniors Michael Valle and Aaron Gross powered the Whiteland boys basketball team through a slow start on Tuesday night. It was sophomore Brennan Neal, however, who saved the day in crunch time.
Neal scored 11 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, including nine during a pivotal run, to help the Warriors pull out a 60-59 victory againsts Martinsville in the first round of the Franklin Central Sectional on Tuesday night.
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“Sectional games, there’s going to be a moment where it gets tough,” Whiteland coach Matt Wadsworth said. “And when it gets tough, you’ve got to stick together, and I think we did.”
The Warriors (15-7) move on to face Center Grove in a Friday semifinal. The two county rivals have played each other twice already this season, with Whiteland winning both meetings on its home floor.
Gross’ fourth 3-pointer of the game gave Whiteland what seemed like a comfortable 37-26 lead with 5:04 to go in the third quarter, but Martinsville got its sputtering offense untracked and began to chip away. A pair of Jonathan Collier buckets to end the period trimmed the Warriors’ edge to two at 41-39, and the Artesians got a 3-pointer from Collier and a three-point play from Reid Staggs at the start of the fourth quarter to take a 45-41 lead, their first of the second half.
Neal, though, led the charge back. He hit a 3-pointer to cut Martinsville’s advantage to 47-46, then added another on Whiteland’s next possession to tie the game at 49-49 with 3:50 remaining. A little more than a minute later, Neal converted a three-point play off an inbounds play to put the Warriors back on top, 52-49.
“I was just being confident when I was shooting,” Neal said, “and it was going in, so I just rode with it.”
Martinsville (5-16) stayed close and had a shot to tie it with 10 seconds left on the clock, but Gross rebounded a Collier miss and converted two foul shots at the other end to seal it. Levy Chandler hit a 3-pointer as time expired to shrink the final margin.
Valle and Gross scored the first 22 points of the evening for Whiteland, with Gross pouring in 11 straight to give the team a 19-17 lead early in the second quarter. The Artesians refused to go away, however, going into the locker room down by just six, 30-24, despite 12 first-half turnovers.
Gross finished with a game-high 18 points for the Warriors, while Valle joined Neal with 15. Levy Chandler and Collier scored 17 and 15 points, respectively, for Martinsville.
Now, the Warriors turn their attention toward a third battle with the Trojans.
“Our mindset is that we determine our own destiny,” Wadsworth said. “We talk about playing hard. We talk about the fact that a game in December and January is not going to determine the outcome of a game in March. Both teams are going to play extremely hard; both teams are going to be well prepared. It should be a fun game to watch.”