DUNLAP – The Warsaw girls basketball program has a rich and storied tradition of excellence.
This year’s Tiger team made sure Saturday night that the program returned to its past glory of winning championships.
Warsaw played its role as sectional favorites to perfection by downing Northridge 46-35 to lay claim to the Class 4-A Concord Sectional title Saturday night.
A big third quarter effort, fueled by a determined effort at the defensive end, netted the Tigers the program’s 16th sectional championship, but first since 2004. The program also owns a pair of state championships in 1976 and 1978.
No. 8 Warsaw, 22-1, advances to play Penn (19-4) next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET in the second semifinal game of the Valparaiso Regional. The regional opener at 10:30 a.m. ET pits No. 5 Merrillville (22-1) versus Lake Central (16-7).
The Valparaiso Regional title tilt is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET next Saturday. The winner moves on to a one-game semi state on Feb. 23.
The Kingsmen won their third straight sectional title and 14th overall Saturday night by beating rival Mishawaka 63-31 to win the Penn Sectional. The Tigers topped the Kingsmen 55-42 on Jan. 16 at Penn.
Senior Lindsay Baker scored 13 points, senior Jennifer Walker-Crawford nine, juniors Nikki Grose and Eryn Leek six each and senior Melanie Holladay five to lead a balanced effort for the champions. Grose also had a huge game on the glass with 12 rebounds.
Senior Haley Schrock led Northridge, which finishes at 19-5, with a game-high 15 points.
“I just wanted this so much for these girls,” said fifth-year Warsaw coach Michelle Harter, who was an assistant coach in the program in 2004. “It means so much to me to see these seniors be sectional champions. They have worked so hard to earn this.”
Earn it the Tigers definitely did Saturday night against a tough Raider team.
Northridge, which lost 52-39 at home to Warsaw on Jan. 5 in a Northern Lakes Conference clash, led 15-14 at halftime.
The Tigers, though, bigger and strong imposed their will to win on the Raiders in the game-changing third quarter. Baker, the heart and soul of a veteran Warsaw team, tallied five points and Holladay came up huge as the 5-8 human floor burn had a pair of key rebound baskets as the Tigers outscored Northridge 14-3 to take a 28-18 lead. Warsaw closed the period with a 7-0 run on Holladay’s two critical putback hoops sandwiched around a dagger triple from Baker, that elicited a fist pump from the emotional guard.
“The big difference is that we kept our composure and let the game come to us in the second half,” said Baker. “At crunch time, we made plays. We focused more on one possession at a time and doing the little things. It was get a stop, get a score.”
Holladay said she got inspired at halftime by her coach.
“I got momentum from coach at halftime,” said Holladay. “She was not happy with our rebounding in the first half. I just went out there and crashed the boards and went up with them. It was a confidence booster for me. We knew the first three minutes of the third quarter would be important. We needed to get on a roll and we did. We wanted it for coach tonight.”
Northridge got within 32-28 with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter on a trey by Haley Schrock. Walker-Crawford answered with a huge bucket off a drive and then the Tigers scored their final 12 points from the free throw line in the final 2:33 as the Raiders were forced to foul every possession. Warsaw hit enough free throws, finishing 13-of-24 for the game, including 12-of-22 in the second half. Walker-Crawford and Leek each made three free throws and Baker, Grose and Brooklyn Harrison each drained two in the final stanza.
“We picked up our defensive intensity in the second half,” said Harter, who saw her team hold a leg-weary Raider team to a 12-of-37 field goal shooting performance. “We got some stops and got on a run. We told the girls not to panic and stay patient.
“The defensive end was the key for us. We made them work the ball and wore them down. It was about staying the course on defense. We’ve talked about poise all year and at crunch time we got the baskets when we needed them. We got some great attacks to the basket and hit some key free throws late.
“Nikki did a great job on the boards for us and Mel was big with those two rebound baskets in the third quarter. It’s all about the fact that these kids don’t care who scores. They all understand their roles and they all do what it takes for us to be successful.”
Walker-Crawford, Warsaw’s top scorer at 14.2 points-per-game, was all smiles after this one.
“I’m very satisfied,” said Walker-Crawford after cutting down the nets and posing for a plethora of photos during the post game celebration. “This was our No. 1 goal. We listened to what coach said at halftime and took it to heart. I have so much faith in coach. Our seniors get along so well and work so well together.”
Northridge, whose tallest starter stands 5-11, simply could not match up physically with the Tigers, specifically the athletic 6-0 Walker-Crawford and the strong 6-1 Grose in the post. The Raiders, who were bidding for the first sectional title in program history, lost in the final for second straight year.
“We had the right game plan, but their size and strength just got to us in the second half,” said sixth-year Northridge coach Doug Springer. “We had to use up a lot of energy and I think in the second half our legs kind of gave out. We had a tough game Friday night (in beating Goshen in the semifinals).
“Give Warsaw credit. They made plays when they had to. They got some key putbacks in that third quarter. I told our kids there was no pressure on us tonight. Our kids were kind of ticked off for this game because Warsaw overlooked us, talking about having to go through Memorial to win the sectional.
“I think our kids played with a chip on their shoulder tonight. But, the better team won.”