Jennings County’s season-long goal of winning its first boys basketball sectional since 2005 came up just a little short Saturday night.
The Panthers were within three points with two minutes remaining, but New Albany made 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch to hold on for a 55-49 win in the Seymour Sectional final.
“We tried to get a trap, and we didn’t trap them very well; and they ran some time off the clock,” Jennings coach Joe Hartwell said. “They hit their free throws down the stretch, and that’s the big thing.”
The Bulldogs’ free-throw success in the final two minutes followed back-to-back misses on front ends of one-and-ones that allowed the Panthers to cut a 48-40 lead to 48-45 on Brad Hunt’s three-point play with 2:03 left.
Jennings (15-10) was trying to make its second big comeback of the game. New Albany (17-6) forced seven first-quarter turnovers and took a 24-14 lead with three minutes left in the first half.
“Their pressure bothered us,” Hartwell said. “We didn’t handle the ball very well. It could have been nerves. It could have been excellent pressure. We got our composure back and made some shots and had a chance near the end.”
“I thought pressing was something we could do to beat them,” New Albany coach Jim Shannon said.
“Half-court defense was hard because if they get into their half-court flow, they’re so big, and they have shooters. It’s very difficult to defend them in the half court, but in the full court, I felt like their ballhandling was a little suspect.”
The Panthers scored the final nine points of the first half to get back in the game. Freshman Tyler Vogel hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and Hunt converted a 3-point play to cut the lead to 24-23 at halftime.
Jennings took a one-point lead four times in the third quarter, but each time, the Bulldogs responded.
Hunt, a 6-foot-9 senior, led Jennings with 16 points, but was bottled up for most of the night by the physical Bulldogs.
“They weren’t calling fouls all night,” Hartwell said. “They called it fair, but they pushed him out of the lane a lot, and he didn’t get a lot of catches where he needed to catch it.”
Vogel hit three big 3-pointers and finished with 13 points and six rebounds.
“The sky is the limit for this kid,” Hartwell said. “He played excellent in this tournament, and let’s hope that he works himself in the offseason and gets even better.”
Senior Adrian Kirchner added 10 points and six rebounds for the Panthers.
New Albany senior Leondre McBirth hit five 3-pointers and led all scorers with 28 points.
“We had no answer,” Hartwell said. “We tried to help, but when we helped, they hit shots with other guys.”
The Panthers’ win avenged a 56-52 loss at Jennings on Feb. 8.
“I think the only difference between this game and the last game was Dre McBirth was not himself the first time we played,” Shannon said. “He was himself tonight, and I think he was the difference maker.
“I also thought we did a better job of defending Hunt inside,” he said. “He’s so big and such a nice player; it presents a lot of problems for us. I felt like this time we did a better job of helping on him.”
Jennings’ 15 wins were its most since going 19-4 in 2010-11.
“These guys accomplished a lot with some guys injured, and we probably could have a few more wins that we let get away,” Hartwell said. “It was a great season for our guys. They have nothing to hang their heads about.”