NAPPANEE – The free throw line was worth an awful lot to the Warsaw girls basketball team Thursday night.
The veteran Tigers were fine from the line, especially at crunch time, to down host NorthWood 35-29 in the Northern Lakes Conference and regular-season finale for both teams.
Senior standouts Dayton Groninger and Madi Graham were clutch from the charity stripe late in the game to lift Warsaw to the win.
On a night when points were as hard to come by at times as a warm breeze outside, the Tigers outscored the Panthers 14-2 from the 15-foot line. Warsaw finished 14-16 from the stripe, while NorthWood was just 2-6.
Star Groninger scored a game-high 15 points and Graham added eight as Warsaw improved to 19-3.
Sophomore Kenzie Bergman scored 11 points and junior Savannah Feenstra seven to lead the Panthers, who drop to 15-9.
The Tigers scored nine of their 16 points in the fourth quarter from the line. Graham hit three free throws, while Groninger, senior Kenzie Welk and freshman Kaylee Patton each calmly drained two each in the final frame.
Warsaw finishes at 5-2 in conference play, while NorthWood drops to 4-3. Northridge completed it second straight 7-0 mark in the NLC with a 55-30 win at Plymouth Thursday night. Elkhart Memorial is 4-2 with its final league game on Friday night at Goshen.
“We want to get to the free throw line and our girls did a great job doing that tonight,” said Warsaw coach Michelle Harter. “They attacked and got to the line and that’s definitely what we want to see. We have a great free throw shooting team. In games we have lost this year, we have not gotten to the line much.
“I think that it’s a credit to our experience with our senior leadership tonight. It says a lot about that leadership and experience with how we got to the line. Dayton did a tremendous job in the second half attacking. I pulled her aside during one timeout and told her to attack and she did.”
Warsaw led 5-0 to open the game before the Panthers rallied to take an 11-10 lead after the opening frame. The second quarter, which featured plenty of patience and long possessions on offense by NorthWood, saw each team make just one field goal. The Panthers led 14-12 at halftime as Taitlyn Trenshaw hit a 3-pointer for the hosts in the second period. A layup by Page Desenberg was the only two points for the Tigers.
NorthWood shot 6-17 and Warsaw 4-17 from the field in the opening half.
The Tigers, who beat NorthWood 41-37 last season, took the lead for good in the final minute of the third stanza. Groninger converted a bucket with 32 seconds to play to give her team a 19-18 lead.
Warsaw stretched its lead to open the final period as Groninger hit a layup and a pair of free throws to make it 23-18. NorthWood, behind the play of Bergman and Fenestra, rallied within 24-23 midway through the quarter. Graham then hit a huge trey to make it 27-23, which was answered by a triple from Bergman to narrow the game to 27-26. Groninger then drove for a bucket with 1:55 to play and Graham hit two free throws with 1:16 left to make it 31-26. Welk and Patton each hit a pair of free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the win.
“I was very pleased with our defense,” noted Harter. “We communicated well, we were physical inside and we contested their shots. I thought we had great effort on 50-50 balls too. Tonight was definitely important to win and finish in second place in the NLC. And it was huge for momentum to take into the sectional next week.”
Warsaw, which now leads the series 25-18, broke a trend. The home team had won the previous seven meetings between the two in the series.
Groninger, who will play at Indiana Wesleyan University next season, now has 978 career points. She is fifth in program history in that category.
NorthWood coach Adam Yoder pointed to Warsaw’s experience as the deciding factor down the stretch. The Tigers had four seniors on the floor in the final frame, while the Panthers had two.
“I think that their overall experience showed in the fourth quarter,” said Yoder of the Tigers. “They have a senior-laden team and it showed late. They earned the free throws that they got tonight. Dayton and Madi are good. They are big guards and hard to defend.
“I thought that we did a lot of good things tonight. Our kids gave everything they had. We had a great effort. It’s always a lot of fun to play Warsaw. It’s two great programs going at it that respect each other.”
Desenberg had six points, Patton four and Welk two for the Tigers. Groninger led her team with 11 rebounds.
Warsaw shot 9-29 from the field, including 3-12 from distance.
Senior Taitlyn Trenshaw had six points and freshman Madison Payne four for the Panthers. NorthWood shot 12-41 from the field, including 3-16 from distance.
NorthWood won the junior varsity game 37-35. Kate Rulli had 10 points and Lexi Parisi nine to pace the winners. Maddie Ryman and Kenzie Martz each had eight points and Halie Shipp and Miah Holsclaw seven each to lead Warsaw.
Warsaw plays Elkhart Memorial on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Goshen Sectional. NorthWood faces Wawasee on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the West Noble Sectional.