By KEVIN HARRIS
EVANSVILLE – At this time last season, New Albany was in the midst of a season-ending 24-game winning streak that concluded with the Bulldogs winning their first state championship since 1973.
Right now, New Albany is on a similar win streak and it hopes this string of victories will eventually help the Class 4A No. 2 Bulldogs cut down the nets again at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in late March.
New Albany won its 10th game in a row Saturday night at Reitz Gym, beating Evansville Reitz 79-48. Prior to the current win streak, the Bulldogs lost two consecutive games. On Dec. 10 at Southport Fieldhouse, New Albany dropped an 84-60 decision to Class 4A No. 1 North Central. That was followed by an 85-63 loss to LaPorte La Lumiere, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the USA Today Super 25 expert rankings at the time, on Dec. 15 at New Castle Fieldhouse in front of a national television audience.
“We really played well tonight. Since the North Central game, we’ve been on a pretty good run,” Bulldogs’ head coach Jim Shannon said. “We’ve got a lot of kids playing well. Derrick Stevenson, a sophomore, has really stepped up for us and Savion Southers, a junior, has come in and given us a lift off the bench. He’s played really well and (junior forward) Blake Murphy has given us some good minutes.”
This past weekend was the third straight double weekend where New Albany ended up with two victories.
On Friday night at The Doghouse, Silver Creek took its best shot at the defending Class 4A state champions by pulling out to a nine-point lead in the second quarter. But New Albany came back to beat the Dragons 76-61.
“It was a great weekend. We beat Silver Creek, another rivalry team that came in and gave us their best effort. We played great, but we just needed to play a little bit better,” Shannon said. “(Saturday night), we went on the road to one of the toughest places to play and played really well.”
Junior swingman Romeo Langford had another solid performance with game-highs in points (25) and rebounds (10).
“Ro is amazing – I say it every game. He keeps putting on a show,” Shannon said.
Senior center Jyrus Freels led the Panthers (8-6) with 14 points.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Langford – The 6-foot-5 star made 10 of his 18 field-goal attempts and half of his 10 3-point tries.
But Langford showed he can distribute the ball to his fellow Bulldogs as well as he recorded five assists. Langford could have had more assists if some of his teammates connected on some shots.
“He’s very unselfish - probably one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached,” Shannon said. “We want him to make plays. He’s kind of taken the team under his wing at times, and we’re going to need him to do that in certain games. It’s what we’re asking him to do every game. He’s so unselfish that he wants to get everybody else involved.”
In fact, Shannon felt his top player was a little too unselfish Saturday.
“I told him in one of the timeouts, ‘I know you’re trying to get everybody involved and I appreciate it. But, man, if you’re open, I want you shooting the basketball,’” Shannon said.
KEY SEQUENCE: The Bulldogs turned the game into a blowout in the second quarter thanks to their defense.
Leading 21-10 at the end of the first quarter, New Albany allowed just six Reitz points in the second to go up 37-16 at halftime. The Panthers misfired on eight of their 10 shots in the quarter, and did not hit a field goal until around the 1:30 mark of the period. For the game, Reitz was 19-of-51 from the floor (37.3 percent).
The Panthers entered the game ranked seventh in the state in scoring at 76.2 points per game. Reitz’s 48 points were a season-low.
“Our defense is our bread and butter. That’s how you win championships. You win it with defense,” Shannon said. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting closer. We’re just going to keep plugging away. It was very good tonight.”
UNSUNG HERO: Julien Hunter, New Albany – The talented freshman showed his potential Saturday with 10 points and seven rebounds. Hunter made all five of field-goal attempts. He also drew praise from Shannon for his defense on Freels.
“What about Julien Hunter?” Shannon said. “He had 10 points and seven rebounds and really did a consistently good job on Freels. Freels is a really good player.”
WHAT NEW ALBANY DID WELL: The Bulldogs did a great job of sharing the ball in their offense as they passed effectively inside and out and around the perimeter.
As a result, they had five players score in double figures. Joining Langford and Hunter in double digits were Stevenson with 12 points and guards Isaac Hibbard and Sean East with 10 apiece. Stevenson grabbed seven rebounds and East dished out three assists.
“I thought Sean East played a great floor game tonight,” Shannon said.
Plus, the Bulldogs’ defense shut down one of the best offensive teams in the state.
AREA OF CONCERN FOR NEW ALBANY: Shannon was not thrilled with his team’s 3-point shooting percentage. But he also mentioned that his players have struggled shooting at Reitz Gym in the past.
The Bulldogs shot 8-of-23 from behind the arc (34.8 percent). Hibbard and East, who are two of New Albany’s best long-range shooters, were a combined 2-of-8 from 3-point range.
“We didn’t shoot the 3 as well as I’d like, but we generally don’t shoot here very well,” Shannon said.
NEW ALBANY’S NEXT GAME: At Evansville North (3-12), next Friday, 8 p.m. EDT.
NEW ALBANY 79, EVANSVILLE REITZ 48
New Albany 21 16 25 17-79
Ev. Reitz 10 6 19 13-48
New Albany (13-2): Romeo Langford 25, Derrick Stevenson 12, Sean East 10, Isaac Hibbard 10, Julien Hunter 10, Savion Southers 8, Blake Murphy 2, Seth Short 2, Kameron Guess 0, Peyton Martin 0, Marcus McGee 0.
Evansville Reitz (8-6): Jyrus Freels 14, Brennen Whitlock 10, Tamaje’ Blackwell 8, Elijah Dunham 6, Isaiah Dunham 5, Jonathan Springer 5, Noah Jones 0, Reid Mahan 0, Travis Nolan 0, Da’Ziaun Sargent 0, Noah Smith 0.
3-point field goals: New Albany 8 (Langford 5, East 2, Stevenson 1); Reitz 6 (Blackwell 2, Whitlock 2, E. Dunham 1, Springer 1).
Rebounds: New Albany 34 (Langford 10); Reitz 26 (I. Dunham 8).
Turnovers: New Albany 7, Reitz 11.
Total fouls: New Albany 9, Reitz 13.Fouled out: none.