By GREG MENGELT
NORTH VERNON —
New Albany may win its first Hoosier Hills Conference championship in four years, but it will have to wait another two weeks to do so.
And the Bulldogs may now have to share the title after Saturday’s 56-52 loss at Jennings County.
The loss was the first after starting with five conference wins. The Bulldogs can still clinch at least a tie with a home win over Bedford North Lawrence (8-7, 3-2) on Feb. 21. The door has opened for Columbus East to win its first HHC title since 2003. The Olympians can tie for the title with New Albany with a home win over Madison (11-3, 3-2) and a victory at Jeffersonville (8-8, 2-3).
For the first time since 2004, no Hoosier Hills team will go unbeaten in league play. There hasn’t been a tie for the championship since 2000.
“We’re not out of it,” New Albany coach Jim Shannon said. “If we beat Bedford at home, the worst we can do is tie. It’s our to at least tie if we take care of business.”
On Saturday at Charles W. Hurley Gymnasium, the Bulldogs led 25-19 at the half before being outscored 18-6 by the host in the third quarter. New Albany was able to get within two points late in the contest, but Jennings held on to improve to 9-7 overall and 2-3 in the HHC.
“We’ve won some close games. Tonight we didn’t win a close game,” Shannon said. “It’s just one of those things.”
“We made the plays in the end when we had to make them,” second-year Panther coach Joe Hartwell said.
Trailing 51-42 with 1:24 remaining, Davon Winburn led a furious Bulldog charge.
The New Albany junior hit a 3 to pull the Bulldogs to within six. After Richard McNamee scored his only two points of the night for the Panthers, Winburn hit another 3 and the Bulldogs trailed 53-48 with 43 seconds remaining.
Dan Leach hit 1 of 2 free throws to make it 54-48 before Leondre McBirth converted a 4-point play to cut the Panthers’ lead to 54-52 with 18 seconds left.
However, Hunter Euler hit a pair of free throws and Winburn and Dustin Cochran missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds to allow Jennings County to escape.
“I knew it would be a tough one,” Shannon said. “I knew Jennings County was better than their record indicates. I think they’re a good team. I do. I knew we’d have to fight a letdown from [Friday’s 37-31 win over rival Providence]. It’s no excuse.”
Jennings went 14 for 15 from the foul line and outscored the Bulldogs 14-1 at the stripe. The Panthers were 9 of 10 from the line in the fourth quarter.
“That’s how you win ball games,” Hartwell said.
“In fairness to the officials, I thought we just didn’t take it to the basket,” Shannon said. “Jennings gives you some trouble because of their size. They don’t allow you to drive to the paint because they’re so tall.”
Jennings led 8-7 with two minutes left in the opening period before the Bulldogs closed the quarter on a 5-2 run, capped off by an Isaac Hibbard running 3-pointer just inside halfcourt at the buzzer to give New Albany a 12-10 lead.
The Bulldogs got the lead to 20-14 at the 4:22 mark of the second period on a McBirth fastbreak layup. After the Panthers closed the gap to 20-19 with 2:56 left, the Bulldogs finished the half on a 5-0 run on five straight points from McBirth for a 25-19 lead at intermission.
McBirth scored nine of his 17 points in the second period. The Bulldog senior, who was suspended for the second time this season on Friday, came off the bench late in the first quarter Saturday to go 7 for 11 for the contest.
“I wasn’t going to start him,” said Shannon, who indicated that McBirth, “broke team rules. [The infraction] wasn’t serious but it was enough.”
New Albany shot 11 of 24 from the floor and was 3 of 7 from the 3-point line in the first half. In the second half, the Bulldogs went 11 of 28 from the field and made just four of their 15 3-point attempts. In the third quarter, they were just 3 of 10 overall and didn’t make any of their five 3-point shots.
“I thought we controlled the first half, but we could not put the ball in the basket in the second half,” Shannon said. “I thought we had some really good looks, some wide open shots. We just didn’t make them.”
Adrian Kirchner led Jennings with 14 points by going 6 of 7 from the field. The Panthers’ 6-foot-9 center Brad Hunt was 5 of 8 from the floor and finished with 12 points.
“Every time he catches it in the paint, he’s going to score,” Shannon said of Hunt. “He’s been doing that all year. He’s a good player. If you’re 6-foot-9 and can catch it, you’re going to lay it in over inferior height. That’s what he does.”
Jennings County has suffered some tough conference losses in 2013-14. The Panthers dropped a double overtime decision to Bedford, a three-point loss to Madison and a four-point defeat at Columbus East. After Saturday’s win, Hartwell said the Panthers have to be considered sectional contenders.
“I think New Albany’s still the favorite,” he admitted. “We got them on a night when they weren’t shooting well. But I think we have to be in the conversation now.”
Winburn had a career night with a game-high 21 points of 9 of 12 shooting. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, going 6 of 8 from the floor and 3 of 4 from behind the 3-point arc.
New Albany (12-4) goes to Evansville Central (9-5), where it will attempt to end the Bears’ four-game winning streak, on Saturday.
JENNINGS COUNTY 56, NEW ALBANY 52
New Albany 12 13 6 21—52
Jennings County 10 9 18 19—56
New Albany (12-4, 5-1 HHC): Dustin Cochran 0-4 0-0 0, Jeff Byrne 1-3 0-0 2, Davon Winburn 9-12 0-0 21, Javen Reeves 1-2 0-0 2, Leondre McBirth 7-13 1-1 17, Issac Hibbard 1-8 0-0 3, DeAnthony Warren 2-6 0-1 5, Nick White 1-4 0-0 2. Team 22-52 1-2 52.
Jennings County (9-7, 2-3 HHC): Richard McNamee 2-3 0-0 4, Jonah Woods 0-1 0-0 0, Hunter Euler 0-1 6-6 6, Adrian Kirchner 6-7 0-0 14, Ethan Jarvis 1-2 0-0 3, Dan Leach 1-8 4-5 6, Johnny Scruggs 2-6 2-2 7, Tyler Vogel 2-3 0-0 4, Brad Hunt 5-8 2-2 12. Team 19-39 14-15 56.
3-point field goals: New Albany 7-22 (Winburn 3-4, McBirth 2-4, Warren 1-3, Hibbard 1-6, Byrne 0-2, Cochran 0-3); Jennings County 4-15 (Kirchner 2-3, Jarvis 1-2, Scruggs 1-3, Woods 0-1, Euler 0-1, Vogel 0-1, Leach 0-4).
Rebounds: New Albany 22 (McBirth 6); Jennings County 28 (McNamee 7).
Assists: New Albany 6 (Cochran 2, McBirth 2); Jennings County 12 (Euler 4).
Steals: New Albany 8 (Winburn 2, McBirth 2, Warren 2); Jennings County 2 (Kirchner, Hunt).
Blocked shots: New Albany 1 (Warren); Jennings County 0.
Turnovers: New Albany 6, Jennings County 13.
Team fouls: New Albany 14, Jennings County 6.
Fouled out: None.
Technical fouls: None.