WARSAW – There should be no shortage of incentive on either side Saturday afternoon when powers Warsaw and Penn clash in the girls basketball regional at Vaparaiso.
The No. 8 Tigers, despite a glittering 22-1 record and the program’s first regional berth since 2004, still feel they have something to prove.
Penn, despite all of its postseason success the last two years, has not fared well at all versus Warsaw in its rich girls hoops history.
The bottom line though is that both teams want to play again Saturday night for a regional championship and a spot in the semi state.
Warsaw (22-1) is slated to play Penn (19-4) in the second semifinal game Saturday of the Class 4-A Regional at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET. The 10:30 a.m. ET opener pits No. 5 Merrillville (22-1) versus Lake Central (16-7). The winners return at 8:30 p.m. ET for the regional title game and a berth in the semi state on Feb. 23 at either Warsaw or Crown Point.
The clash of titans Saturday will be the first-ever postseason meeting between the two squads. Warsaw is 6-1 all-time versus Penn, including a 55-42 victory at Penn last month. The Tigers were also the lone team to defeat the Kingsmen in the regular season last year with a 52-50 win in the Tiger Den. Penn, which earned a state runner-up finish in 2011, lost in the semi state last year at Warsaw to finish a 25-2 season.
The matchup features a Warsaw team completely in new territory against a Penn team whose top two players, seniors Olivia Carlton and Taylor Lutz, have a wealth of state tournament experience from the past two seasons.
“I think our girls do have some extra incentive,” said Warsaw coach Michelle Harter at Media Day on Wednesday. “I think they have a chip on their shoulder. People don’t think we are going to win Saturday and I know that motivates them.
“The one nice thing is that we did play Penn earlier and we have a feel for what they do. It will be a completely different experience for our kids. We just have to stay focused and poised and remember what got us here. We just need to relax and come out and play ball on Saturday like we are capable.”
The first meeting on Jan. 16 at Penn saw Warsaw outscore the hosts 19-10 in the fourth quarter to pull away to the 13-point win. The Kingsmen, a streaky shooting team that relies heavily on the 3-point shot, was just 14-of-48 from the field in the loss, including 2-of-14 from distance.
It wasn’t so much their shooting woes though that still stick in the mind of Penn coach Kristi Kaniewski Ulrich from that first game versus the Tigers.
“I did not feel we brought our best effort and intensity the first time we played Warsaw,” said Kaniewski Ulrich in a phone interview earlier this week. “Our fight was not there that night and that’s something our program has hung our hat on.
“We know we have to come ready to play on Saturday. We’re excited about the opportunity, regardless of who we are playing. The bottom line is that we have to get the job done.”
Warsaw’s stellar senior duo of Jennifer Walker-Crawford and Lindsay Baker led the way in the first clash with Penn. Walker-Crawford had 16 points and Baker scored 13 and hit three treys. Junior Nikki Grose also turned in a big time game with 13 points and eight rebounds. Walker-Crawford leads the Tigers in scoring at 14 ppg. while Baker is at 12.5 and tops the team in both assists and steals. Grose is averaging 11 points and a team-high nine rebounds per contest.
Baker, who is ninth all-time in program history with 877 career points, is very familiar with her foe on Saturday. The University of Toledo recruit has hit 50 treys this season to tie for third in single-season history of the program.
“We know how they play,” said Baker, who has played AAU in the offseason with both Carlton and Lutz since she was 10 years old. “But, the bigger thing is that we have played so much together and believe we have a lot more basketball to play this season.
“We’re very confident. We know that we have to come out and get after them from the start Saturday. Defense is how we win games. That’s always the No. 1 key for coach, our defensive intensity. I think it’s going to be a matter of who wants it more on Saturday.”
The pair of Carlton and Lutz, two heady guards, pace Penn. The 5-8 Carlton, who will play at Coastal Carolina, averages 11.7 points-per-game and has made 48-of-117 treys. Lutz, a 5-9 guard bound for Grand Valley State, averages 11 ppg. and is 25-of-66 from distance. Lutz shot 6-of-12 and had 14 points in the first game with Warsaw, while Carlton was 2-of-10 from the field (0-of-6 on threes) and scored nine points.
“The big key is that we handle their pressure,” said Harter. “We’ll be ready for it. The first game we were patient and didn’t let their press speed us up. We have to find their shoots and contest shots.
“The 3-pointer is a big part of their game, but so is dribble penetration. We have to stop that and close out on their shooters. I did think we played with a purpose and intensity the first time against them. I do expect that Penn’s effort will be much higher this time against us. We have to come out early and settle in. With our experience, I think we will be fine.”
The rematch pits a pair of defensive-oriented teams. Warsaw is allowing just 34.3 ppg. on the season and has given up a high of 49 points (versus Marion). The Kingsmen allow 36.1 ppg. and have won six in a row since the loss to Warsaw. Penn took apart a very good Mishawaka team in the second half of their own sectional final to win 63-31.
A wildcard for the regional showdown could be Caroline Buhr. The 6-1 junior has played the last three games for Penn after returning from a knee injury suffered during an AAU game last summer. She is averaging eight points and five rebounds per game.
“We’re just excited to have Caroline back,” said Kaniewski Ulrich, a former player at Mishawaka and Bethel College who is an amazing 83-11 in her fourth season as the Penn head coach. “Her presence alone is a positive for us.”
“This is a tough regional. It’s going to be a great challenge. We know that. Warsaw is a team of very solid players, who know their roles. Baker can flat out shoot and both of their big girls (Walker-Crawford and Grose) did a nice job of being efficient in the post.”
Harter, who was a Warsaw assistant coach in 2004 the last time the Tigers played in a regional and played on a state runner-up team at Wawasee in 1985, feels her team wants to do something special.
“Ou goal is to play another home game,” said Harter alluding to the fact that Warsaw is a semi state host. “Our girls want to do that, especially our five seniors. I don’t think they are satisfied with just winning a sectional. Our seniors want to put up a banner in our gym. That’s their ultimate goal.”