By KEVIN HARRIS
When you look at the records of both Jeffersonville and New Albany, you might think that tonight’s 151st meeting between the archrivals at Johnson Arena will be a mismatch.
The Red Devils enter the contest with an 8-2 mark, including a 2-0 record in the Hoosier Hills Conference. New Albany currently stands at .500 with a 4-4 record, with a 2-1 mark in the HHC.
But Jeff coach Chad Gilbert begs to differ.
The second-year Red Devil boss thinks New Albany is a lot better than its record indicates, and he expects another nailbiter in the historic rivalry tonight.
“New Albany is the best 4-4 team in the state. They could easily be 8-0,” Gilbert said. “They are extremely athletic and they have excellent shooters. It will definitely be a battle.”
The Bulldogs have lost their last two games after building a double-digit lead in each contest. On Dec. 18 at The Doghouse, New Albany had a 25-12 advantage against Castle in the second quarter. But the Bulldogs allowed the Knights to come back and lost 67-58.
Then last Friday, New Albany was up 42-28 in the third quarter at Evansville Reitz. But the host Panthers rallied to knock off the Bulldogs, 55-54.
Plus, the Bulldogs had a chance to win their HHC opener on Nov. 30 at Columbus East, but fell to the Olympians in double overtime, 99-92 after leading 20-9 after the opening quarter.
New Albany coach Jim Shannon says his players have simply got to find a way to finish games.
“In crunch time, we’ve got to take care of the basketball better and take good shots. Defensively, we’ve got to buckle down,” said Shannon, whose team also lost to Class 4A No. 4 Evansville Harrison on Dec. 1, 66-62. “It’s a matter of execution, but we’ve been out-executed in those games. We’ve been playing well, but not finishing well.”
As for the Red Devils, they have found a way to win a couple of close games this season.
Senior guard Darryl Baker hit a game-winning shot with 2.2 seconds left in regulation in the Red Devils’ 65-64 victory at Class 3A No. 4 Evansville Bosse on Dec. 1. Last Saturday, Jeff pulled out a 56-46 win over defending 3A state champion Guerin Catholic in the semifinals of the Bob Wettig Tournament in Richmond.
“I think our guys step up to the challenge,” Gilbert said. “We’ve executed when the cards have been down.”
But the Red Devils have let a couple of contests slip away as well. On Dec. 11 at Johnson Arena, they fought tooth-and-nail with Louisville Ballard, the top-ranked team in Kentucky, but lost to the Bruins, 69-67.
Then on Saturday night in the Wettig Tournament final, the Red Devils held a two-point lead with less than three minutes to go in regulation against Columbus North, but the Class 4A No. 8 Bull Dogs pulled off a late rally to defeat Jeff, 61-55.
The Red Devils’ leader has been Baker, who is averaging 26.5 points per game. Shannon says Jeff has some other players who are having solid seasons as well in junior guard Drew Ellis, junior forward Keenan Williams and sophomore guard Myles Harvey.
“Baker is capable of putting up 20-40 [points] a night,” Shannon said. “But they got other guys who can score, and that puts you in a tough spot. You’ve got to know where Ellis is at all times. I think he’s the glue that holds them together. He’s a great leader. Williams is a great player and you don’t want to let Harvey get loose.”
The Bulldogs have vastly improved on offense this season. Following a 2011-12 campaign where it averaged 58.2 points per game, New Albany is scoring 68.4 points a clip this year.
The Bulldogs’ key veteran players like guards Jermaine Parrish and Leondre McBirth and center Anthony Edwards have shown lots of improvement this season. Plus the addition of senior forward Josh Rogers and his 3-point shooting ability has helped make New Albany an even better offensive team.
“I think we’re shooting the ball better,” Shannon said. “We just made a lot of improvement over the summer. Shooting is not a problem for us, but taking care of the basketball has been.”
Gilbert says several Bulldogs have the potential to give the Red Devils fits tonight.
“Their whole team concerns us,” Gilbert said. “They are a flat better team than they were last year. Edwards is definitely a post presence for them. Their guards get in the lane and create good shots for their shooters.”
Gilbert says the keys for the Red Devils to earn their second win in a row in the rivalry are making the extra pass on offense and being mentally focused. He expects the Bulldogs to have at least two defenders on Baker throughout the contest.
“We need to value the basketball. We see New Albany as a test for our guards,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got to continue to pass up good shots for great shots. We’ve also got to play within ourselves. This will be another test for us.”
Shannon, who has a 14-9 record against Jeff in his New Albany tenure, thinks his troops must be sound on both ends of the floor to knock off the hated Devils.
“We’ve got to make sure we contest every shot and not give Jeffersonville any second shots. Plus we’ve got to make shots,” Shannon said. “If we do that, I think we’ll be fine.”
Shannon expects his players to be fired up to take on Jeff tonight. New Albany currently leads the all-time series record at 76-74, and has won nine of the last 11 meetings.
“Every year, I always have a team that’s motivated for Jeff,” Shannon said. “We’ve had a great week of practice and it will be a great atmosphere.”
Gilbert expects a hard-fought, competitive game tonight.
“I think both teams are competitors. Both teams are going to play hard — no question about that,” Gilbert said. “Our guys play hard every night and want to win.”