In the preseason, the Southern Indiana basketball skeptics thought this might be a down year for the New Albany boys’ hoops team.
On Saturday night at Bloomington South, the Bulldogs showed they have the potential to be better than their critics think.
New Albany held off a late charge by the Panthers, who are ranked 14th in the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association preseason poll and received votes in The Associated Press Class 4A preseason poll, to win ts season opener, 64-60.
It also was South’s season opener.
“A lot of teams around the area and in the state don’t think New Albany basketball is where it used to be,” New Albany senior Leondre McBirth said. “But with the team we have, we can bring that liveliness back to New Albany.”
McBirth had a season opener to remember.
The 6-foot-1 finished with a career-high 30 points, scoring 19 in the second half. For the game, he shot 11-of-21 from the field, 5-of-11 from 3-point range and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line. He also grabbed a team-high five rebounds.
“He had a great game,” Bulldogs’ head coach Jim Shannon said of McBirth. “He missed some shots early that he normally doesn’t miss. He couldn’t quite find it. Then he went inside a couple of times and it got him going I think. He started lighting it up.”
New Albany was without McBirth for the final minute and 48 seconds of the contest.
After he gave the Bulldogs their largest lead of the game at 60-51, McBirth fouled out with less than two minutes remaining in regulation by getting into Panthers’ sophomore guard Tucker Blackwell while attempting a 3-pointer. Blackwell hit two of the three free throws to pull the Panthers to within 60-53.
“It was a stupid decision. I thought he flopped, but I knew my team was going to pull it out so I wasn’t concerned,” McBirth said. “But I felt like I let my team down when I fouled out.”
Blackwell’s two foul shots started a 7-0 run that got South to within 60-58 with 37.4 seconds left. But the Panthers blew two chances to extend their spurt and take the lead after Blackwell and teammate Johnny Jager each missed field-goal attempts near the bucket.
After Jager’s misfire, New Albany senior guard Dustin Cochran got the rebound and drew a foul on Panthers’ forward Isaiah Gooch. Cochran made the front end of a one-and-one to put the Bulldogs up 61-58 with 15.3 ticks remaining.
South got its deficit down to one with 8.4 seconds left when Gooch tipped in a missed layup by Jager.
Junior Jeff Byrne increased New Albany’s lead back to three at 63-60 after sinking two free throws with 5.8 seconds remaining. Cochran then had one of the biggest defensive plays of the game by forcing the Panthers to turn the ball over against the Bulldogs’ full-court press in the backcourt with 3.5 ticks left.
After Byrne made the second free throw in a two-shot situation with 2.6 seconds remaining to give New Albany a 64-60 lead, Blackwell missed a half-court shot right before the buzzer.
Shannon praised Cochran, Byrne and New Albany freshman guard Isaac Hibbard for weathering the storm without McBirth in the late stages.
“It really hurt us that we had to play without ‘Dre in there,” Shannon said. “We were playing the last two minutes in a frenzied atmosphere without him. So we got a freshman out there getting indoctrinated [into high school basketball] that I thought really held his own. He did a nice job.
“I thought Jeff Byrne stepped up at the end. I thought Dustin Cochran stepped up and handled the ball really well at the end. But ‘Dre was the story. He was pretty good tonight.”
Cochran scored 13 points and Byrne had 11. Both players dished out two assists apiece. Cochran and fellow New Albany senior Javen Reeves shared team-high rebounding honors with McBirth with five boards.
Five South players scored in double figures. Blackwell ended up with 17 points. Jager and teammates Gage Rogers and Keaton Hendricks each tallied 11, and Gooch had 10. Gooch completed a double-double with a game-high 10 rebounds.
New Albany will host Class 4A No. 2 Evansville Harrison next Saturday.