With 42 seconds left to play, the huge crowd of Connersville fans that filled half the stands in New Castle Fieldhouse — maybe more than half — began to roar with approval.
The Spartans were headed to a second consecutive regional appearance.
CHS defeated New Castle, 59-44, Saturday night to defend its Sectional 9 championship and book a return trip to Southport Fieldhouse for regional play.
The 26-1 Spartans will play Brownsburg (18-6), which beat Terre Haute South, 83-78, to win Sectional 12 at Plainfield.
The second game will feature Indianapolis North Central (23-4) against Ben Davis (19-5).
Senior standout Grant Smith once again led the way for head coach Kerry Brown’s squad, scoring a game-high 30 points and snaring 12 rebounds.
After the Trojans (17-7) took a 33-32 lead with 3:38 to play in the third quarter, Smith made a hanging jump shot, a 3-pointer, a turnaround jumper — and two foul shots thanks to a technical foul whistled on New Castle senior Titen Bennett who voiced his disagreement with an official’s call.
The one-man burst put the Spartans on top, 41-34, entering the final quarter.
Smith opened the last stanza with 4 consecutive free throws, and less than 30 seconds later, junior point guard Garrett Silcott converted a steal into a two-hand dunk that gave CHS a 47-35 advantage and effectively put the game away.
“What these kids did tonight is awesome. It’s beyond awesome,” Brown said as his players were cutting the nets off the goals in the world’s largest high school gymnasium.
“This is a great win because New Castle is so tough to play against. They’ve got all the weapons. They’ve got a strong inside game and they shoot the ball so well.
“But we’ve got a tough group of kids, a group of tough-minded kids. I just think our guys just were not going to be denied.”
Connersville was again without the services of forward Beau Isaacs — with the exception of the final 5.1 seconds of the first quarter when CHS had the ball for a final shot.
The ball didn’t come Isaacs’ way, and the Spartans failed to get off a shot. But his presence on the court was a positive spark for the Big Red — and Isaacs.
“It was killing me not to be out there, but I knew we could win even if I didn’t play,” the affable 6-4 senior said during a break from well-wishers and fans — young and old. “It is bittersweet but I had confidence in our guys and I’m so happy we won.”
Isaacs continues to receive therapy and plans to play against Brownsburg. He heaped a large helping of praise on CHS trainer Audree Shaw, whom he’s been working with daily.
“She’s been absolutely great,” he said.
Smith — who was besieged by fans after snipping his piece of the championship game net — was happy, proud and pumped up as he took a brief break from posing in photos with his faithful.
“This is great. There’s no better feeling than winning back-to-back sectional championships,” said the 6-6 All-State candidate who was a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and 16-of-17 overall.
“This is such a great atmosphere to play in. Our crowd and student fans are great.
“This,” he added, “is Spartan Nation.”
Smith said he knows the matchup against Brownsburg will be a “battle,” and he’s looking forward to playing in Southport Fieldhouse again.
“Next team up … we’ve just got to go out and beat them.”
Brown lauded Smith for his sectional performance, and more.
“Grant has had a great year, all of our kids have had a great year but he’s kind of put us on his back, especially after Beau went down.
“He’s led us in rebounding, he’s led us in scoring and assists but he’s also made our other players better and he’s made our team so much better. He’s definitely an Indiana All-Star. Hopefully he’ll get the recognition he so much deserves.”
Tickets for the regional will go on sale Tuesday at the CHS Athletic Department office, according to AD Brent Duncan. Call 825-2900 for more information.
Ticket distribution and other details will be finalized during a meeting on Monday between officials from the participating schools.
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