The old basketball adage about it being difficult to beat a team three times in a season proves true yet again.
After losing to Whiteland twice during the regular season, including a bitter defeat in the Johnson County tournament championship, the Center Grove boys got their revenge on Friday night with a 56-39 victory in a Class 4A sectional semifinal at Franklin Central.
“I think from the tip tonight, we were the aggressive team,” Trojans coach Zach Hahn said, “and that’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time. Every night, we’ve got to be the aggressive team and carry that momentum and intensity for 32 minutes.”
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The Trojans (16-7) will play in the title game tonight against the host Flashes, a winner over Franklin in the first game of the evening. Franklin Central beat Center Grove 61-51 on Jan. 7 but later had to forfeit the victory due to use of an ineligible player.
The showdown got off to an interesting start, with the Warriors holding the ball for almost four minutes on its opening possession. Both teams eased their way into the proceedings, and the opening quarter ended with the Trojans up, 4-2.
In the second period, the pace picked up a bit. Aaron Gross, faceguarded for most of the first period, hit a pair of heavily-guarded 3-pointers to give Whiteland a 13-7 advantage, but when the Warriors’ Michael Valle picked up his third foul on a charge with 3:06 left in the half, Center Grove took advantage of his absence. Ben Nicoson hit a 3 and Spencer Piercefield added two more, fueling a quick 9-1 surge that helped the Trojans take a slim 19-16 edge into the intermission.
A basket down low by Whiteland’s Noah Hale cut the deficit to one at the top of the third quarter, but a 10-1 run — two layups by Travis Roehling bookending consecutive 3s by Nicoson — stretched the Center Grove lead out to double digits at 29-19 with 4:57 left in the period. Roehling added a 3-pointer just before the horn to make it 34-23 with eight minutes remaining.
“That 3-point shot is a weapon that they like to use, and we needed them to miss more than they did tonight,” Wadsworth said.
Piercefield started the final quarter with a 3 to put the Trojans up by 14, and they were able to maintain a cushion of at least nine for the remainder of the affair.
Nicoson scored 13 points to lead the way for Center Grove, while Piercefield and Roehling added 12 and 11, respectively. Brennan Neal had a game-high 16 in defeat for Whiteland, which got 11 points from Valle.
Slowing down Gross, who finished with nine points on contested 3-pointers, was a priority for Center Grove.
“When we stopped him, their offense slowed down and they had to take some tougher shots,” Nicoson said. “That was our main focus on defense.”
Though their season ended prematurely, Wadsworth had plenty of praise for his senior class, which led the way to Whiteland’s first back-to-back county titles and the program’s first consecutive winning seasons since 1993.
“I think our senior group has really helped instill a winning mindset that filters down through our program,” he said.