For all of the offensive weapons in its lineup, the Center Grove boys basketball team prides itself on winning with defense.
Tuesday night, the Trojans did it again, holding Martinsville to 32 points through the first three quarters and coasting home for a 70-54 victory in the first round of the Class 4A Greenwood Sectional.
“I thought our defense really kept us in it,” Center Grove coach Zach Hahn said. “We held them to 21 in the first half, which is what we talk about as a goal. … I was really proud of how we stayed aggressive that whole time.”
The Trojans (17-6) will face the host Woodmen in the second semifinal Friday night, while the first will feature Franklin against Whiteland, which was a 70-57 winner against Franklin Central in Tuesday’s opener behind 28 points from Brennan Neal.
Story continues below gallery
Martinsville was able to stay within striking distance through the first half and a good chunk of the third period, pulling within 39-32 on a pair of Reid Staggs free throws with 4:28 on the clock. But Center Grove scored the last 10 points of the frame, finishing out with a Spencer Piercefield 3 and a Trayce Jackson-Davis three-point play, and then got a basket from Joey Klaasen opening up the fourth quarter to stretch its advantage to 51-32.
Moments later, Nate McLain turned a steal into a poster-worthy on a Martinsville player to make it 55-34, and the Artesians never got closer than 14 the rest of the way.
“I’ve always wanted to dunk in a high school game; I’ve dunked in AAU and summer ball and stuff,” said McLain, who finished with 19 points. “I had enough space, so I just went up and dunked it. It was pretty exciting.”
Jackson-Davis led all players with 25 points and 13 rebounds while Piercefield added 15 points for the Trojans, who haven’t let being a heavy sectional favorite make them complacent.
“Everyone’s out to get us, so that means they’re going to bring their ‘A’ game against us every night,” Jackson-Davis said. “So we’ve got to bring that every night to try to counteract that.”
In the first game of the night, Whiteland (11-12) rode a Neal and a strong outside shooting night overall to the victory.
“It’s easy to overlook what he does because you just have grown to expect it from him,” Warriors coach Matt Wadsworth said of Neal, “but he was confident and didn’t pass up good looks.”
The Flashes had the hot shooting hand early on and built a 20-7 lead over the first six minutes, but the Warriors countered with 14 consecutive points to pull ahead. Brennan Neal and Carter Crowe ended the first period with 3-pointers, and Neal started the second with another 3 and a dunk before Luke Helton capped the surge with a 3.
The Warriors hit 11 shots from behind the arc in all.
“I feel like they’re as effective against against zone defenses as any team I’ve coached,” Wadsworth said. “We’re unselfish; we flash gaps well. Once we started hitting that outside shot, when Luke and Brennan and Carter started to get rolling, then that changed the flow of the game, and I thought the up-tempo game favored us a little bit.”
Riley Higdon, who finished with nine assists and nine steals, hit a floater just before the halftime buzzer that sent Whiteland into the locker room with a 30-27 halftime edge.
Neal and Crowe hit 3s midway through the third quarter, and two Higdon free throws and a strong move down low from Cole Ferguson late in the period stretched the Warrior advantage to 49-36. Franklin Central was unable to get any closer than eight the rest of the way.
Crowe finished with 13 points in the win, while Helton added 11.
Tuesday was the first sectional experience for most of Whiteland’s players, and while nerves may have played a role in the team’s slow start, the Warriors can no doubt derive confidence from the way they bounced back and took control.
“We were just coming off of a loss to Beech Grove,” Higdon said, “and with this win I feel like it gives us momentum going into the next game. So I think it’s a big win for us.”