SOUTH WHITLEY – The sometimes seemingly wrongly-named free throw line has cost many a basketball team a victory.
On Friday night, it helped the Warsaw girls basketball team claim one.
The Tigers found out just how much those “free” throws are really worth in posting a hard-earned 53-45 win at Whitko.
Warsaw was fine from the line to the tune of an 18-of-23 effort, while the host Wildcats were just 4-of-6 from the stripe.
Senior standout Jennifer Walker-Crawford led Warsaw with a game-high 23 points. The smooth and athletic Walker-Crawford drained 11-of-15 from the line, including 4-of-4 in the final 43 seconds to seal the win.
The Tigers shook off another slow start to hold off the scrappy Wildcats in improving to 4-0 on the young season.
Warsaw, which had beaten Whitko 60-26 last season, looked on paper to have a huge edge Friday night. The Tigers return a wealth of experience from last year’s 16-5 team, including Toledo-bound Lindsay Baker and Walker-Crawford (who will play at Kentucky Wesleyan College next year). Conversely, Whitko has just one starter back from last year’s 9-13 squad.
But, on this night, the feisty Wildcats went toe-to-toe with their bigger, stronger and more talented foe for the better part of the entire 32 minutes.
“I thought our experience did help us down the stretch at the line,” said Warsaw coach Michelle Harter. “The free throws have not been our friend in the past like last year and even early this year. But tonight the girls stepped up and focused when they needed it and made them.
“Jennifer did a tremendous job tonight. She got in the gaps in their defense and finished shots. I didn’t think the officials helped us tonight. They were hanging all over us and holding us and I think we let that bother us in the first half.”
Warsaw, playing its first road game of the season, trailed 11-7 after the first quarter as the Wildcats used a 9-0 run to take the lead. The Tigers answered with a 7-0 run in the second period to take a 24-23 halftime lead. Walker-Crawford scored six points in the second stanza, while Sarah Ray gave the Tigers a key spark off the bench. Ray and Brooklyn Harrison each hit a clutch trey in the quarter for Warsaw.
The Wildcats, who fall to 2-3, kept in it thanks to the play of Jordan Hall in the opening half. The 6-0 junior center scored 10 of her team-high 14 points in the second period.
Warsaw built its second-half margin to as many as 11 points by taking a 45-34 lead on a triple by Eryn Leek with five minutes to play. The Wildcats refused to go down without a fight though. Whitko answered with an 8-0 run, including a clutch trey by Kelly Reiff, to pull within 45-43 on a bucket by Hall with 2:07 remaining in the game.
The Tigers turned to the line to hold on for the win. Warsaw scored its final eight points from the charity stripe as Walker-Crawford hit all four of her throws and seniors Melanie Holladay and Baker each hit a pair. Baker, who did not have a field goal in the game, hit two clutch tosses with 26.4 seconds left to make it a two-possession game at 51-45 after Melanie Kelsey had hit a huge 3-pointer for Whitko.
“I thought in the second half we did a much better job being patient and slowing down,” Harter said. “A big key too was that we tightened our defense on the inside on Hall. I think a big thing in regards to our slow starts is that we need to relax and be patient at the beginning of games.
“Sarah Ray gave us a big lift tonight. She did a very nice job with her quickness on defense and also being ready to shoot.”
Spunky senior Ray scored seven points for the Tigers and gave Warsaw a definite spark off the bench in the opening half especially. Juniors Nikki Grose and Leek each had six points and Grose a team-high eight rebounds. Baker, who was hounded all night by Whitko’s gimmick defense, finished 0-of-6 from the field, but did have four steals.
Whitko, which has lost five in a row to Warsaw, got 14 points and nine rebounds from Hall. Cagney Craig, one of three seniors, had 10 points, five assists and three steals and senior Josie Sparks and junior Kelly Reiff each had eight points.
“I can’t ask for any more effort from my kids,” said second-year Whitko coach Brandon Bradley. “I can’t complain about that. They’ve given me superior effort every night and tonight was no different.
“These girls don’t quit. They are feisty and scrappy. We were a lot more prepared this year for their press. They missed some shots early and it was huge that we were able to frustrate Baker. We had a lot of help on her and everyone knew where No. 25 was at for Warsaw.
“The thing is that it’s pick your poison because Warsaw is a top 10, top 15 team in 4-A. Walker-Crawford is just very skilled. She’s just a matchup nightmare at 6-1.
“When we play calm and with effort on defense like tonight, we’re hard to match up with. A big difference tonight was that Hall was able to play 28 minutes for us. Cagney is just so fast and so athletic for us. Josie had her best game of the year. She played great for us tonight.”
Whitko did hurt its chances with 23 turnovers, while the Tigers had just 10.
Megan Kratzsch netted 14 points as the Warsaw junior varsity team posted a 39-21 win. Courtney Farling, Vicki Harris and Erin Clemens each had six points for the Tigers. Jen Reiff led Whitko with 10 points.
Warsaw (4-0) plays at Wabash Dec. 4. Whitko (2-3) hosts Fort Wayne Northrop Thursday.