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Center Grove uses defense to down Warriors

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Center Grove played what coach Cliff Hawkins described as its best all-around offensive game this season in Tuesday’s Class 4A boys basketball sectional-opener.

The tournament-host Trojans needed every bit of the scoring against a Whiteland team that mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback.

Center Grove hit 56.5 percent of its field-goal tries, including 61.1 percent from 3-point range, and built an 18-point second-quarter lead, only to watch the Warriors whittle the Trojans’ advantage to just three with 1:06 remaining.

Center Grove made just enough plays down the stretch to eliminate Whiteland and advance to the Center Grove Sectional semifinals with an 82-74 victory.

The Trojans (9-12) play Franklin Central (11-10), which drew the bye, at about 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Flashes defeated Center Grove 72-57 on Nov. 30.

Whiteland’s season ended at 8-14.

Hawkins was most pleased with the Trojans’ across-the-board offensive contributions.

“We attacked and were able to penetrate well,” Hawkins said. “Our two leaders, Michael Benkert and Tyler Bryant, really focused on competing and attacking.”

Benkert scored a game-high 33 points, despite a defense geared to stop him. Whiteland tried multiple defensive looks, including a box-and-one for a few possessions, but the Trojans’ 6-foot-4 junior wing still hit 12 of 17 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range.

His teammates followed suit. Bryant added 16 points, while Titus McCoy scored 14 off the bench, including 10 in the fourth quarter when Whiteland mounted its comeback.

“In basketball, we play so much, sometimes it’s easy to lose that competitive edge,” Hawkins said. “Titus gives us that edge every single play.”

Center Grove hit 19 of 24 free throws and out-rebounded the Warriors, 31-25. Whiteland shot a respectable 47.3 percent from the floor (26 of 55), but hit just 16 of 29 free throws (55.2 percent).

The Warriors’ Jacob Stidham nearly matched Benkert’s offensive output, attacking the basket aggressively en route to a team-high 29 points. He hit 11 of 14 from the floor, with all of his points coming in the paint or at the free-throw line. He hit just 7 of 16 from the stripe, however.

John Hubler added 19 points for Whiteland, including 10 in the fourth quarter, while Tom Purdie chipped in with eight points and six rebounds.

“The game changed when we extended our defense,” Whiteland coach Matt Wadsworth said of the comeback. “Jacob did a nice job all game of pushing the ball up the floor, and then posting up.

“Early on, Center Grove was the aggressor in terms of getting to the basket and rebounding.”

The Warriors trailed 76-66 with 2:33 remaining, but a Stidham post basket, Terr’e Moss 3-pointer and a Moss drive to the basket trimmed the lead to 76-73 with 1:06 remaining. Titus McCoy hit two free throws on Center Grove’s next possession, however, and Whiteland didn’t draw closer than four points after that.

“Once we got into February, we talked with the seniors about what their legacy would be,” Wadsworth said. “It would be easy for anyone to give up after losing seven games in a row like we did, but no one on our team did that, especially not the seniors.”

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