NAPPANEE – The Warsaw girls basketball team walked out of the Panther Pit late Saturday night with a Northern Lakes Conference championship in tow.
The Tigers also walked out of the gym at NorthWood High School with their first loss of the 2012-13 season.
The second fact may serve coach Michelle Harter’s talented team much better in the long run, but only time will tell on that one.
Host NorthWood spoiled Warsaw’s bid for an undefeated season by toppling the Tigers 34-30 in NLC action.
Senior Savannah Bley and junior Morgan Olson each scored 11 points as the Class 3-A No. 4 Panthers improved to 18-3 overall and 4-2 in league play with their 13th straight win.
NorthWood, whose losses are to Penn, Elkhart Memorial and Plymouth, has not lost since dropping a 42-34 league game to Plymouth back on Dec. 15.
Senior Jennifer Walker-Crawford led Class 4-A No. 8 Warsaw, which was outscored 18-7 in the second half, with 10 points.
The Tigers, who shot just 14-of-49 from the field, claim the NLC title at 6-1. Warsaw had already won the championship outright prior to the game as NorthWood, Northridge and Plymouth all had two losses in league play.
Harter saw her team win its first NLC title since the 2009-10 season. She also saw the dream of the program’s first undefeated regular season since 1989-90 dashed.
“This game does not define our season,” said Harter, whose squad beat NorthWood 50-39 last year. “I told the girls to feel the pain of this and learn from it and not let it happen again.
“One of our goals was to win the NLC and we did that. The ultimate goal is to win the sectional and keep playing in the state tournament. I think this loss takes the pressure off of an undefeated season. The girls can now relax and just play. I thought we were tight the last two games.
“Tonight was the first time this season we did not play well as a team. I told the girls it’s the first time that they played as five individuals offensively and not as a unit. We got impatient, rushed things and did not take shots in the flow of the offense in the second half and that’s why we only scored seven points.”
Warsaw, whose 30 points was a season low, had a chance late to tie the game. The Tigers trailed 32-29 with 22.7 seconds to play when Lindsay Baker was fouled on a 3-point shot attempt. Baker hit just 1-of-3 free throws to cut the Panther lead to 32-30. Olson then calmly drained a pair of free throws with 17.6 seconds left to seal the win. Olson had six huge points in the final quarter, including a jumper off an offensive rebound to give her team the lead for good at 30-29 with 2:03 to play. Bley then hit a layup with 58.1 seconds left after NorthWood drained more than a minute off the clock.
The Tigers took a 25-16 lead on a Walker-Crawford layup with 7:15 to play in the third quarter, the first bucket of the final half. The Tigers were then outscored 10-0 the rest of the period as the Panthers rallied to take a 26-25 lead. Warsaw shot an abysmal 3-of-19 from the field in the second half.
Warsaw could have put the game away in the opening half if the Tigers had made some shots. The Tigers, who shot 11-of-30 in the first half, led just 23-16 at halftime despite the fact that NorthWood had 16 turnovers at intermission. The Panthers threw the ball all over the gym in the opening period with 11 turnovers in the first stanza, including seven in the first four minutes.
“We felt great at halftime to be only down by seven,” said NorthWood coach Steve Neff, who collected his 630th win. “We were just throwing the ball away in the first half. We were not very patient and played scared.
“We challenged the girls at halftime. They responded. It was a team effort. Warsaw is a great team and Walker-Crawford is one of the toughest we’ve played against. It was intense tonight. What you want before sectional.
“We had the lead there at 30-29 and there was no use attacking their matchup zone. We took the chance to pull it out and spread them out at that point and Savannah got a big basket.”
Harter saw her team go 0-of-10 from 3-point range and be outscored 8-2 from the free throw line. The Tigers, who entered the game averaging 54.4 points-per-contest, were also out rebounded 40-25.
“The big key was that we didn’t finish shots early in the game,” Harter said. “With the opportunities we created and their turnovers, we should have been up 20 at halftime. We missed a ton of shots and that was a big factor and set the tone for the game.
“When shots aren’t going, you have to have to attack. We have to finish those easy looks we got early in the game tonight. We missed them and that kept them in it. Then, we rushed things in the second half.”
Baker scored eight points and Nikki Grose had six and 11 rebounds.
Warsaw eked out the junior varsity contest 24-22. Courtney Farling had 10 points and Vicki Harris six for the Tigers. Kaylee Haynes led NorthWood with seven points.
Warsaw wraps up the regular season by hosting South Bend Riley Thursday. It will be Senior Night as the program will honor Walker-Crawford, Baker, Melanie Holladay, Sarah Ray and Gabby Monroy. The Tigers will then play in the Concord Sectional, which begins Feb. 5. The tourney draw is scheduled for Sunday night at 5 p.m.
NorthWood plays its regular-season and NLC finale at Concord Friday night.