GOSHEN – The tears flowed freely as the senior members of the Warsaw girls basketball team headed to the bench for the final time in their high school careers late in the game Friday night.
An understandable emotion for a quality group that has invested so much into the program.
Warsaw saw its stellar season end with a 54-27 loss to No. 7 Northridge in a semifinal game of the Class 4-A Sectional.
The Raiders, now 25-1, advance to play No. 10 Penn (20-4) Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the sectional final. The winner earns a spot in the LaPorte Regional Feb. 11 against the winner of the Lowell Sectional. Penn defeated Elkhart Central 45-28 in the first semifinal game Friday night.
The Raiders have won 13 straight games since their lone loss of the season, a 50-44 setback to Penn back on Dec. 13 in Middlebury. Penn, which was Class 4-A state champions a year ago, is shooting for its seventh straight sectional title Saturday night.
Northridge, whose lone sectional title came in 2014, looked the part of a champion Friday night.
The Raiders, who had beaten Warsaw 47-43 back on Jan. 7, dominated the entire 32 minutes. Northridge opened the game poised and confident at both ends of the floor from the opening tip.
Northridge bolted to a 10-0 lead out of the gate as senior Julaine Miller drained a pair of treys in the first five minutes. The Tigers had four turnovers in the opening four minutes and were never able to recover.
The Raiders led 12-4 after the opening period of play as Warsaw had six turnovers in the first eight minutes. Warsaw pulled within 14-9 on a triple by star senior Dayton Groninger less than a minute into the second quarter. The Raiders answered with a 9-0 run, keyed by six points from senior Marci Miller and another trey from Julaine Miller, to make it 23-9.
Northridge took a commanding 33-14 lead into the locker room at halftime. Marci Miller had 12 points and Julaine Miller nine for the Raiders. Northridge shot 11-21 from the field in the opening half, while Warsw was just 6-18.
“I thought that we came out and played scared,” said Warsaw coach Michelle Harter. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was the pressure or what. It was kind of how we looked in practice on Thursday.
“We got back on our heels right away tonight. We were a step slow on defense and we rushed on offense and hurt ourselves with the turnovers early on. Give Northridge all the credit. They came out and took it to us and we did not respond.”
Northridge extended its lead to 49-25 at the end of the third period. The two teams then combined for just seven points in the final frame as both coaches emptied their benches.
“Northridge moved the ball well inside and outside and we were a step slow,” noted Harter. “They executed and we got into rut and could never get out of it.”
Groninger led the Tigers with nine points, giving her 1,003 for her brilliant career. Sophomore Kacy Bragg scored six points and senior Page Desenberg five. Senior Madi Graham finished with three points, while seniors Mariah Rivera and Kenzie Welk each had two.
Marci Miller led the Raiders with 21 points, including an 11-13 effort from the line. Julaine Miller and sophomore Morgan Litwiller each scored nine points and senior Kelsey Brickner eight. Leading scorer Brooke McKinley, a junior guard, had two points, but six assists.
Northridge was just the second team this season to score more than 50 points on the Tigers. Warsaw entered play Friday night allowing just 37 points-per-game.
Warsaw shot just 10-38 from the field, including 4-20 in the second half. The Tigers were 3-18 from distance and were out rebounded 31-17.
The Raiders shot 18-36 overall from the field, including 4-9 from distance. Northridge was 14-17 from the line.
“I thought that our defense really stepped up tonight,” said Northridge coach Doug Springer. “We played as one on the defensive end. The first time we played them I thought that we gave Dayton and Madi too many open looks. We did not do that tonight.
“It was one of those things where we got on a roll. We switched well defensively, we passed the ball well and we rebounded. Our program is based on defense. In the past we have been accused of being a finesse team. We want to be a physical team and we were tonight.”
Harter had high praise for her senior group of Groninger, Graham, Desenberg, Rivera, Welk and Abby Glass. The six led the Tigers to a 20-4 mark their final campaign.
“These six seniors are what Lady Tiger basketball is all about,” remarked Harter. “I can’t say enough abut their work ethic and their desire to get better.
“They had a tremendous season. They bounced back last year after we started the season 0-9. That says a lot about their character and their desire. We’re really going to miss this group.”