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Braves shook off rocky start to become tourney contender

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By mid-January, the season was all but lost.

Too many young players and too many tough opponents were a little too much for the Indian Creek boys basketball teams, which lost six of its first seven games and was accelerating toward a forgettable year.

On Jan. 18, the Braves were 3-8 and were in contention for nothing, it seemed, except the bottom of the Mid-Hoosier Conference standings.

Postseason expectations? Players were just hoping to win a fourth game before it arrived.

“Whenever you get in the dumps, it’s hard to get out of the dumps,” senior guard Brett Dehart said. “But along the way, our practices have been a lot more focused, and I think that’s carried over to our games and led to some of our success.”

Braves coach Derek Perry thinks the same thing.

Although it took half a season to figure out, the youthful Braves have learned to play to their strengths and gained measures of self-assurance and experience that were sorely lacking when they lost eight of their first 11 games.

Tonight, they enter the postseason having won seven of their past nine and are viable contenders for the Class 3A Beech Grove Sectional title.

Indian Creek (10-10), which received a bye, plays Greencastle (8-10) today in a 6 p.m. semifinal.

“We’ve got some confidence since the first part of the season. They’ve really raised their confidence level,” said Perry, in his fourth season with the Braves. “They just play hard. I thought that was the key with these guys. We’re playing some young kids.

“I think it took them a little bit to get going, but I feel like we’re going in the right direction at the right time and starting to play some pretty good basketball.”

Particularly in the past six games, a stretch that included a four-game winning streak and — remarkably — a share of the conference championship with a 63-58 victory at Waldron in the regular-season finale. The Braves share the title with Knightstown. Both finished 7-2 in the Mid-Hoosier.

“We found ourselves in the chase the last three or four ballgames of the season,” Perry said. “It came about quickly, and we were lucky enough to put ourselves in that position. When you’re sitting there 1-6, my thing was to get the kids just playing harder and focusing on the little things.”

In short, that being smarter about shot selection and being relentless on defense — difficult lessons for a young team that features two freshmen and three sophomores in an eight-player rotation. The inexperience was exacerbated in the first of the season, where the Braves’ toughest opponents were lined up.

The gauntlet included Class 4A Martinsville and Whiteland; Class 3A powers Greensburg and Danville; and Class 2A league rival Knightstown. The Braves lost to each but gained wisdom along the way and are now reaping the benefits.

“We played some pretty tough teams and pretty good competition,” Perry said. “I think we took some things away from those losses that moved us forward the second part of the season. Our defense has been better. Offensively we’ve been more patient, more disciplined.

“We’re a team that creates our offense off of our defense, and I think that’s a lot of what we’ve got the second half of the season.”

Besides picking up experience and forging toughness, the Braves also have become balanced.

Sophomore Cameron Smith is leading scorer at 15.3 points per game. He also averages 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Senior Austin Smith averages 14.1 points and 5.1 rebounds, and DeHart — a four-year starter — averages 8.1 points, 5.9 assists and 3.1 rebounds.

Moving forward, the Braves will need more of the same sustained effort and balance in a sectional field that includes projected frontrunners Danville (17-4) and Tri-West (13-7). But for the moment, their attention is on Greencastle, which started the season strong but has faded down the stretch, having lost six of its past eight games.

“I think we’re confident, but by no means are we over-confident,” Perry said. “They know what’s at stake. It’s not going to be an easy game against Greencastle. I know they’ve kind of struggled as of late here, but we’re a young team, and consistency is what we strive for. We’ve been consistent here for the second part of the season, and but it’s hard to keep that going for a long period of time.

“The kids have been playing harder. I think our confidence is right there.”

Players agree.

“We’re not trying to get too up,” DeHart said. “You’ve got to take it one game at a time, and anything can happen in sectionals. There’s no cakewalk in sectionals.

“You’ve got to be completely prepared and focused and take it one possession at a time.”

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