By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — NEW CASTLE — Late in the fourth quarter of Friday's Class 4A boys basketball sectional semifinal, Kenton Dunham caught a three-quarters court inbounds pass and seemed shocked to be so wide open.
His momentary hesitation allowed a New Castle defender time to recover, but it was only a cursory challenge as the Pendleton Heights sophomore laid the ball in off the glass to extend his team's lead.
The Arabians' 10th straight sectional victory — a 57-43 decision against the Trojans at the New Castle Fieldhouse — only appeared to be so easy.
Pendleton Heights (16-7) trailed for the first time in this postseason and needed a strong fourth-quarter start to put the game away. But the Arabians found a way to get the job done again and will play in their fifth consecutive sectional final Saturday against seventh-ranked Richmond (21-2).
"With this group of kids, they've worked really hard, and not just during the season but in the offseason," Pendleton Heights coach Brian Hahn said, "and when you put that much time and effort in, you're not just gonna let it go easily."
The Arabians appeared to be heading toward a rout early, opening a 15-point first quarter lead and holding the Trojans (9-13) to just two field goals in the first eight minutes.
But New Castle quickly responded, cutting the lead to 26-21 by halftime and moving ahead for the first time on a 3-pointer by junior Abe Haler with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Haler led the Trojans with 17 points, but it was Andrew Garrett's only basket that gave New Castle its biggest lead on the ensuing possession. Garrett's 3-pointer from the corner put the Trojans in front 34-30 with 1:53 remaining in the period and brought a loud New Castle cheering section to its feet.
Pendleton Heights called timeout and began whittling away at the deficit. The Arabians had a chance to tie the game on the final possession of the period but turned the ball over and trailed 36-34 entering the fourth quarter.
All the momentum was resting on the opposite bench, but Pendleton Heights showed no panic.
"I know my teammates are going to come through," Dunham said. "They're going to make big plays, make hustle plays and get the job done."
It was Dunham who made the biggest plays in the final period.
With the Arabians trailing 37-36, he started a 9-0 run with a basket in the paint at the 6-minute mark. About 40 seconds later, Dunham added a 3-pointer and Pendleton Heights had some breathing room.
He scored 14 of his game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter overall, including a 7-for-8 performance at the free-throw line. The latter stat held special significance for the guard, who missed five of seven attempts in a first-round win against Anderson on Wednesday night.
"I was making sure I hit all of them," Dunham said. "That was embarrassing the other night."
With 4:17 remaining in the game, Nathan Phillips made the night's pivotal play. He rebounded a miss underneath his own basket, then powered through a foul for a putback that gave the Arabians a 43-37 lead.
Even though he failed to convert the ensuing free throw, it was clear momentum had swung for good. Dunham completed the run with a pair of free throws with 2:41 remaining, and the Trojans never threatened again.
"We need everybody to contribute for us to win," Hahn said, "and everybody did."
Senior guard Levi Buck joined Dunham in double figures with 13 points, and Phillips finished with a game-high six rebounds to go along with eight points.
The Arabians will seek their fourth consecutive sectional championship, battling Richmond in the final for the third time. Pendleton Heights defeated the Red Devils for the title in 2011 and 2012 and won a semifinal matchup last spring.
But Hahn said none of that will matter this time around.
"They're a different team, we're a different team," he said. "This year, their team is really good. They create a lot of problems. They shoot well, they're quick and they can beat you inside. We've gotta play really well. But I know these kids are going to compete, and that's what they're going to do."