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Drought breakers: New Prairie pulls away from Hanover Central for first sectional title since 2003

NEW CARLISLE -- New Prairie's partying like it's 2003.

OK, it doesn't have quite the ring of the Prince song about 1999, but that's all right, nothing could ruin this mood.

The Cougars (19-7) won their first sectional title in 18 years, around the time their talented senior class was born, defeating Hanover Central 56-40 on Saturday before an energetic crowd that filled the New Prairie gym with a level of noise that hasn't been heard all season.

"This has been a long-awaited night for this whole community and we're going to enjoy it," coach Mike Bauer said. "There was a lot of pressure put on them to win and man, they did it. It feels tremendously. They played as a team all night, all season. I'm just so proud of 'em. They knew coming into this year this was something they wanted and they weren't going to let anything stand in their way. To be totally honest, I didn't do anything. They deserve every bit of the credit. These guys have worked for their whole lives to get this."

NP, which broke its own record for wins in a season, set just the night before, closed the game with 12 straight points to turn back the Wildcats (17-7), ending their two-year reign in Class 3A Sectional 18 that included a 61-47 win over the Cougars in last year's final in Cedar Lake.

"Hanover Central is a tremendous basketball team, but so is New Prairie," Bauer said. "We kept a level head. They got to 34-34 and our guys had a tremendous, mentally strong response to that. That's a credit to these guys, their conditioning, their work. They're tremendous. It's just a great moment."

New Prairie trailed only once, at 10-8, building a nine-point second-quarter lead behind Rylan McBride and Braydon Flagg, who combined for 23 first-half points and five 3s. The Cougars were up 32-24 early in the third when a pair of Nick Holden triples pulled the Wildcats even. The game was tied at 34 before McBride reeled off seven straight points on two free throws, a layup off a steal and a 3.

"Rylan had a great night," Bauer said. "He's the epitome of consistency, just his demeanor on and off the court. The moment doesn't faze him. No matter the situation, I'm going to have confidence he's going to step up and a make a play, whether it's a shot, defending somebody or whatever it might be. He's a lights-on player. He plays and does exactly what he's supposed to do, and he did that in a big way."

Hanover got back within four at 41-37 and 44-40 but hit the wall, failing to score over the final four-plus minutes.

"I think we were just able to hit shots down the stretch, they didn't fall for them and we were able to rebound," Bauer said. "We're big believers that it's not always about scoring. There are so many big plays throughout a game, rebounds, not fouling at a certain place. It's something this team has done a tremendous job of. They've bought into the coaching. They've been able to take a defensive game plan and put it to work. They want to win and they're willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to win. They trust us, we trust them."

McBride scored 21 points, hitting four 3-pointers, to lead a Cougars attack that saw Flagg notch 13 and Grady Lapczynski 10. Mike Ekovich, a 6-foot-7 bruiser, came off the bench to pitch in seven points and snare a game-high 10 rebounds. He averages less than two points a game.

"Mike had a great game," Bauer said. "Just having the size, you can't teach that, and he uses it well. He's just gotten so much better throughout the year, being able to control his body and use it to his advantage and just be a force down low. He's such a strong kid, he has tremendous hands for a big guy, He made a lot of plays. We told the guys rebounding will determine who wins. They are such a phenomenal offensive rebounding team. That's a big chunk of their offense. We tried to focus on taking that away."

Joey Glidewell led Hanover with 13 points and six assists, and Holden notched 11 points. The Wildcats shot 5-of-21 in the second half, including 3-of-14 from the arc. They made 7-of-26 treys in all.

"Their physicality was just too much for us," Hanover coach Bryon Clouse said. "We knew they had some dudes down there. They're bigger and stronger than us. We have twigs, they have beef. The way the game was called was not to our advantage. We needed some of those bumps. Some of our shooters just didn't make shots. Maybe there were some tired legs from playing so much. We don't have a lot of depth, so that probably hurt us at the end, only playing six guys. They had a heck of a draw and we fought through a lot of stuff. They were better than us tonight, that's for sure."

The win advances New Prairie to the South Bend Washington, where it will play top-ranked Hammond in the second semifinal next Saturday. South Bend St. Joseph and Twin Lakes meet in the opener.

"The biggest thing is they play so well together," Bauer said. "The chemistry on this team is phenomenal. They enjoy playing with each other. They enjoy being with each other off the court. They just get along and it's amazing how that translates on to the court. That's the definition of a team right there."

New Prairie celebrates its first sectional title since 2003 after Saturday's 56-40 win over Hanover Central in the championship game. (Photo by Ben Bachmann)

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