Devin Szalay

Devin Szalay of New Prairie posts up on a River Forest defender in Friday’s Class 3A Hanover Central Sectional semifinal.

CEDAR LAKE — With about a minute remaining in New Prairie’s 57-35 win over River Forest in a Class 3A Hanover Central Sectional semifinal, Jackson White caught a pass from Derek Daniels on the left wing.

He rose uand with a flick of his left wrist, sent the ball through the net with a crisp swoosh. The Cougars bench full of starters all stood up with threes on their hands, cheering and celebrating White’s rare basket. His triple marked the tenth New Prairie player to score on the night, making for an evenly-balanced scoring attack.

“It’s great (having so many different guys that can score),” starting point guard Chase Ketterer said. “When one guy isn’t having his night, we know we can rely on other people on the team in the points category. It helps our offense a lot to have a lot of people with a variety of skill sets.”

The Cougars (13-12) always seem to have someone different step up and become the focal point of the offense. Tuesday, it was Braydon Flagg with 18 points in their win over Wheeler in the first round of sectionals. Friday, it was Rylan McBride’s turn.

The junior forward led the team with 15 points on 4-ofo-9 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from the charity stripe. He had a balanced night, as he was able to do much more than just put the ball in the basket. McBride also led New Prairie in steals with four and hauled in the second-most rebounds with six.

“That’s been the story all year,” New Prairie coach Mike Bauer said. “We have different guys step up for us every night. You go box-and-one on one of our guys, well, we’ve got other options. It’s a nice luxury to have a bunch of guys that can do different things.”

While it certainly is comforting for the Cougars to have a multitude of players who can score the ball on any given night, it’s their defense that sets everything up for them. Tuesday, Bauer’s squad blanked the Bearcats in the first quarter. And Friday, the Ingots (6-17) managed just a single point in the third quarter of action.

“Defense is all about pride,” Bauer said. “If you don’t put the effort in, it’s not going to work right. And our guys bust their tails on it and they understand that the better defense they play, the better shots they’re going to get in transition.”

Bauer has gotten his team to buy into his defense-first brand of basketball, and it’s paid off for them throughout the year. It’s no easy task to convince high schoolers that defense is what they should pride themselves on, but he’s done so magnificently.

“These guys want to win,” Bauer said. “Once they realized that the games where we’re solid defensively and rebounding the basketball resulted in wins, they bought in. I was looking at our scores today, and I think there’s only been one game where we’ve held a team under 50 and lost, and if we score over 60, there’s only been one game we’ve lost.”

Continuing that stout defensive play as of late will be less of a challenge than Bauer might have expected at the beginning of sectionals. Six-foot-six senior center Evan Foerg sat out Tuesday’s game due to injury, but came back with a productive game against River Forest. He totaled just five points in limited minutes, but five of his six rebounds were on the offensive glass. Foerg was a stout defensive presence for the Cougars, making things tough for the opposition when they drove inside.

“It’s very nice to get him back,” Ketterer said. “Another big guy with experience is always good.”

The championship appearance may not have seemed possible after a 2018-19 basketball season where the Cougars didn’t win a single Northern Indiana Conference game. But Bauer has had these kids believing all year long.

“It just shows how much better we got from last season,” Ketterer said. “Coach always has a great game plan for every game. We know if we execute, we can compete with anyone.”

Email: jparodi@thenewsdispatch.com

Twitter: @jack_parodi

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