Saturday morning’s Class 4A boys basketball regional semifinal between Center Grove and New Albany played out in almost exactly the way it needed to for the Trojans to pull off an upset.
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Center Grove will be looking back at a handful of what-ifs after a 57-52 defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs — but a young team also has plenty of positives to focus on after giving last year’s state champion all it could handle.
“Basketball’s a game of runs and spurts,” Trojans coach Zach Hahn said, “We’d have a 4-0 run or a 5-0 run, but theirs were 8-0, and that’s really, really hard to overcome in a game of 32 minutes where you’re playing possession by possession.”
The Trojans (17-8) came out determined to contain New Albany junior Romeo Langford, the best player in Indiana. Center Grove faceguarded Langford for most of the game, primarily with sophomore Ben Nicoson, and occasionally shadowed him with two players at a time — even when he didn’t have the ball.
That part of the game plan largely worked early — Langford had just seven first-half points — but the other Bulldogs took advantage of the open looks they got as a result. Isaac Hibbard and Blake Murphy hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the first quarter as part of a 15-2 surge that put Center Grove in a 17-8 hole early in the second.
The Trojans fought back to within two, 22-20, just before halftime before a Sean East bucket sent the Bulldogs into the break with a four-point edge.
Center Grove senior Travis Roehling got going after the intermission, feeding Trayce Jackson-Davis for an alley-oop and then scoring on a reverse layup to tie the game, 26-26, at the 6:26 mark of the third. The Trojans tied it up again moments later on a 3 by Joey Klaasen, but the Bulldogs punched back with eight straight points to go up 37-29 with 2:45 to go in the quarter.
New Albany pulled ahead by as many as 11 points, 46-35, on a Langford putback with 5:21 left in the fourth before Center Grove made another charge. Two big baskets down low by Jackson-Davis sandwiched a 3-pointer from Nate McLain during a 7-0 run that cut the deficit to four with 3:05 remaining.
“We weathered the storm all game,” Hahn said. “We weathered the storm, and that’s the sign of the growth of this team. It could’ve gotten out of hand in the second quarter and in the third, and we just battled back.”
But Langford scored again to make it a six-point game, and on the Trojans’ next possession Hibbard picked off a pass that would have otherwise produced an open 3-point attempt and took it the other way for a three-point play. That made it 51-42 with 2:24 left, and Center Grove never got closer than five after that.
Missed free throws hurt the cause at times — the Trojans were just 8 of 16 at the line, missing five in the fourth quarter alone, while New Albany was 11 for 13.
Roehling led the Trojans with 18 points in his final game, while Jackson-Davis had 16. Klaasen and McLain, the only other Center Grove players in the scoring column, each finished with nine.
Langford finished with “only” 21 but got help from his supporting cast at key times — each of the other five Bulldogs who saw the floor had at least six points, with four different players hitting 3-point shots.
Despite the disappointing setback, Center Grove is well positioned to return to the regional stage in coming years. Though the loss of Roehling will hurt, everyone else who played for the Trojans on Saturday is back.
“I’m so proud of my teammates,” Roehling said. “Being a senior this year and having a lot of young guys, I was so happy that they could help the program get to here, because it was a team effort and we all did it together. I’m excited to see what they do in the future.”