NAPPANEE – A veteran NorthWood girls basketball team was not about to let their veteran coach lose his final game in the Panther Pit Saturday night.
The host Panthers fought off a big-time challenge from a young and game Whitko team for a hard-fought 56-47 win in the title tilt of the Class 3-A NorthWood Sectional.
NorthWood Hall of Fame coach Steve Neff, who will retire at the end of the season, claimed his 24th sectional title in 37 years. Neff is the state’s all-time winningest girls coach at 653-180. Scottsburg’s Donna Cheatham, whose team has been eliminated from postseason play, is 649-209 in 39 seasons. Neff guided the Black Swish to a Class 3-A state championship in 1999.
The No. 11 Panthers (19-5) advance to play No. 12 Norwell (19-4) in the second semifinal game of the Class 3-A Bellmont Regional next Saturday. The 10 a.m. opener pits No. 3 Garrett (23-0) versus Muncie Central (17-5). The winners return to play Saturday night in the regional final.
Junior Jordyn Frantz was clutch in the final frame Saturday night to lift the Panthers. The talented guard, despite playing with a painful back, hit 10-10 free throws in the fourth quarter for the champions.
Whitko, which was shooting for its first-ever sectional title, battled the Panthers all the way. The Wildcats trailed just 37-36 after making the opening basket of the final stanza. The Panthers, however, answered with a 7-0 run to take control.
NorthWood, which won its third straight sectional title, hit 18-24 free throws in the win and only had six turnovers. Whitko was 12-18 from the stripe, but committed 17 turnovers in the loss.
The game was tied at 12-12 after the opening period before NorthWood edged ahead 27-24 at intermission. The Panthers held a slim 37-34 lead after three quarters before outscoring the Wildcats 19-13 in the final frame.
Whitko, which was playing in only its third sectional final in the last 20 years, starts two freshmen and one sophomore. The Panthers have a veteran unit, featuring senior standouts Morgan Olson and Taylor Fielstra, along with junior Frantz.
Jordan Hall capped a stellar senior season with a big time game to pace the Wildcats. The senior center had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman Aly Reiff had 12 points and sophomore Jennifer Reiff 10 for coach Brandon Bradley’s squad.
Olson capped a huge sectional week for the Panthers. The senior center, who will play at Youngstown State, had 12 points. Olson, the program’s all-time leading scorer, also had 14 rebounds.
Frantz led the Panthers with 16 points and senior Tif Alexander added 14.
Whitko finishes one of the best seasons ever at 16-7. It’s the second best record in the program’s history.
The Wildcats lose seniors Hall, Kelly Reiff and Shelby Bolinger.