SEYMOUR, Ind. – Despite a season-high 44 points from five-star guard Romeo Langford, defending Class 4A state champion New Albany was denied a return trip to semi-state Saturday evening.
The top-ranked Bulldogs dropped a 72-64 decision to No. 8 Castle in the Seymour Regional final, ending their season at 25-4. The Knights (24-3), meanwhile, advance to next Saturday’s semi-state round versus Ben Davis (21-7).
Coming off its second state championship and the program’s first title since 1973, New Albany played with a target on its back all year and came away with 25 wins nonetheless – just the fourth 25-win season for the Bulldogs dating back to 1993-94. New Albany’s 52 combined wins in the past two years are a program record.
“They had a great season,” New Albany coach Jim Shannon said. “I told them they had nothing to hang their heads about. I told them we got beat by a really good – not good – a really great basketball team. I think if we played 10 times, we’d split it down the middle, but we don’t play 10 times. We play them once, and they beat us. They deserve it. They played better. … They have a really good chance to win this thing.”
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Langford netted 22 points in each half on his way to 44 Saturday night, marking the seventh time he’s eclipsed the 40-point plateau in his career. The junior owns seven of the Bulldogs’ top 10 scoring performances, including a record 46 points in semi-state play last season. He sits atop New Albany’s all-time scoring list with 2,090 points, good for 32nd in state history.
Joining Langford on New Albany’s all-time scoring list is senior Isaac Hibbard, who sits seventh with 1,149 points. He scored 15 points and hit all eight of his free throws in his final game on Saturday.
“He had a great career,” Shannon said. “Think of what he did in the four years that he was here, and he’s such a great kid. In the gym every night, extra time. Anytime we’re not practicing, he still practices. We’re going to miss him. But very, very proud of what he’s been able to give to our program the last four years. He goes out a big winner, and so do our other kids. We have two other seniors: Peyton Martin and Seth Short. … They’ve been great teammates. Those kids mean a lot to us.”
Castle’s trio of Jack Nunge, Payton Mills and Alex Hemenway proved to be the difference Saturday. New Albany led 33-32 at the break, but Nunge, Mills and Hemenway combined for 32 second-half points, outscoring the Bulldogs by themselves in the third and fourth quarters. Nunge, a 6-foot-11 Iowa commit, led the way with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Mills had 20 points and seven rebounds, and Hemenway added 17 points and six boards.
“I thought we played really well in the first half,” Shannon said. “I thought they pounded us on the glass. Anything close to being around the rim, Nunge seemed like he cleaned up. But he’s 6’11” – you have to get in there and fight him. At the end of the day, he’s going to get some of those by virtue of the fact that he’s so tall, and he’s strong, he’s athletic. He’s really a nice player. But I don’t think he’s the only reason. (Hemenway) was fine tonight. … (Mills) had 20 points. We weren’t expecting that. Kid played hard.”
New Albany led 5-1 less than two minutes in behind a Langford 3-pointer and a Hibbard layup. The Knights, though, responded with a 7-0 run before Hibbard snapped the spurt with a pair of free throws. The Bulldogs regained the lead, but Castle entered the second period with a 16-15 advantage.
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Langford’s block and breakaway dunk opened second-quarter scoring for New Albany, and the Bulldogs took a 19-18 lead on a pair of Hibbard free throws with 6:01 showing. The Knights’ duo of Nunge and Hemenway powered Castle to a 27-23 advantage with more than three minutes until halftime before Langford turned it on. The junior capped a 14-point second quarter by scoring the Bulldogs’ last 10 points of the first half. New Albany led 33-32 at the break.
An 8-0 run lifted the Knights to a 42-37 advantage midway through the third quarter. Langford responded with a 3-pointer, but a Nunge 3-point play extended the lead back to five late in the third. Another Langford 3-pointer inched the Bulldogs within 49-45 entering the fourth.
Langford’s fifth 3-pointer gave New Albany life to begin the final period. The Bulldogs trailed by just one point, but Castle had the answer. A 3-point play from Hemenway gave the Knights another cushion, and a 10-2 run later upped the Castle lead to 59-50 with 5:20 left. The lead grew to 12 on two occasions. Hibbard’s 3-pointer with 1:25 remaining cut the deficit to 68-61, but it was too late for the Bulldogs.
Hibbard said his time at New Albany won’t soon be forgotten.
“My New Albany basketball career has been the best four years of my life,” Hibbard said. “I’m just proud of my team. Last year, we made it all the way to the state championship, and no one can take that away from us. This year, we came up short, but we worked out butts off. Hats off to Castle.”
►EARLIER SATURDAY: Langford’s 21 leads New Albany to regional final
Despite the departures of Hibbard, Martin and Short, New Albany returns a large chunk of its production from this season, including Langford. In addition, juniors Sean East, Blake Murphy and Savion Southers, along with freshman Julien Hunter and sophomore Derrick Stevenson, are set to return next year.
“We’re pretty young, so we have a lot to look forward to, certainly next year and years to come,” Shannon said. “We got a lot accomplished this year. … When you think of what it takes to earn one of these rings, you’re just thankful you got the opportunity to get one. Because they’re not easy to get. … It’s tough, man. It’s tough to get there.”
Class 4A Seymour Regional championship
No. 8 Castle 72, No. 1 New Albany 64
Knights (24-3): Jack Nunge 22p, 14r; Payton Mills 20p, 6r; Alex Hemenway 17p, 6r; Brandon Eades 8p; Jace Stieler 3p; Triston Wilkinson 2p
Bulldogs (25-4): Romeo Langford 44p, 5r; Isaac Hibbard 15p, 3r; Derrick Stevenson 3p; Blake Murphy 2p