ALBION — It was a story of two very different games, but the result remained the same. Saturday night No. 9 Central Noble clashed with No. 2 Whitko in the championship game of the 2017 IHSAA Class 2-A Sectional Tournament, both teams were in pursuit of a program milestone: winning the first sectional title. After a wild game full of plenty of peaks and valleys, the Cougars emerged victorious on their home court with a 47-40 win in double overtime.
“Our girls always seem to find a way to get themselves down,” began Central Noble head coach Josh Treesh, “and always find a way to get regrouped offensively and defensively. They believed at half time that we were in a good position, we came out and continued to play as hard as we could defensively, tried to get our key players a shot to win it and luckily tonight our sophomores hit some big shots.”
It was hard to imagine Treesh saying anything of the sort given the way his team started the game. There was no doubt about it, the Cougars looked like they were out of it before the first quarter had even come to a close. Whitko’s star player, Aly Reiff, started the night off 0-4 from the field, but made her fifth shot to put the ‘Cats up 4-2 with 4:09 left in the first. That make sparked a 17-0 run that carried over into the second quarter.
Whitko held the Cougars scoreless from the 4:35 mark in the first until 5:28 left to play in the second. The Wildcats grew their lead as big as 19 points, 23-4, in the first half. Reiff had accumulated 14 points, four steals and two blocks in the first two quarters alone. Nothing, absolutely nothing was going the right way for Central in the game’s first 12 minutes. But the Cougars closed the half on a 10-3 run and kept things close at 26-14. That deficit gave Central a chance, and that is all the Cougars needed.
Central outscored Whitko 11-4 in the third, holding the ‘Cats to just one field goal in the frame. The Cougars allowed just four points to Whitko in the fourth as well. Whitko gave up the lead for the first time, falling behind 33-32 after Sydney Freeman drained a triple with 2:07 to play. Before regulation came to an end the ‘Cats lot Reiff as the senior fouled out with 1:07 to play. Reiff ended her night with a team-high 18 points.
Whitko forced overtime thanks to some clutch free throw shooting from Brianna Cumberland and a missed potential game-winning free throw from Central’s Katie Vice. Cumberland finished the night with 12 for Whitko.
The two teams each scored four in the first overtime and went into the second deadlocked 38-38. Freeman had the chance to end it in the first extra period as she stole the ball from Whitko with five seconds left and pulled-up for a jumped only to watch it rim out. Freeman used the next four minutes to redeem herself in every way possible.
A total of 11 points were scored between the two teams in the final overtime period, Kennedy Krull of Whitko had two, Freeman had the other nine. The sophomore swished a three to start the period, hit a two midway through and was 4-4 from the line in the final 27 seconds to seal the deal on her team’s first-ever sectional title.
“She’s everything,” Treesh said of Freeman. “I know she makes a lot of mistakes, but she also does a lot of great things for us too. It starts with her defense, it’s everything she does offensively for us, she’s been spectacular for us these past two years.”
Freeman led all scorers with 23 points. Meleah Leatherman added another 11 for the Cougars.
As ecstatic as Central Noble was about winning, Whitko was just as depressed. It was the fourth year in a row that the Wildcats had fallen in the championship game.
“I think we got a lead playing one way and I think we got a little bit complacent there,” said Whitko head coach Brandon Bradley. “We stopped running offense the way we run offense, we breathed a little bit too much on defense and they got a couple of easy ones that kept them in the game.
“I don’t think the wheels came off, we took them to two overtimes without our best player on the floor. Not many teams can do that. I’m proud of our depth. Our kids, they looked doomed that last minute of the fourth quarter. They stepped up and played through it. You can’t say enough about the heart of everyone of those kids.”
Whitko’s senior class departs with a 72-28 record over its four-year period in South Whitley. The Wildcats finish with a 21-5 record this season, a school record for single season wins. The ‘Cats also earned the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking, which they held for several weeks.
“I’ve said all along that the culture, and just the program as a whole, is better now then where it was our my couple of years,” Bradley said, 2016-17 completed his sixth at the helm for the Wildcats.
The post-game interview took a brief pause as Bradley consoled one of his seniors. But that was fitting for what he had already said and for what he would go on to say.
“I think this class has had a big impact on the community,” Bradley continued. “You can count on one hand teams at Whitko that have made deep runs in the state tournament. I’m not from here, I can’t accurately talk about the history of our program or of all the sports, but I would venture to say that there haven’t been many crowds like tonight’s that have showed up to support this program. I know we were the first girls basketball team to be ranked No. 1 in the state, I don’t know about the other programs. These girls have accomplished a lot of things that people can’t take away from them on the court.
“But, once again, I think what they’ve accomplished off the court has had such an impact on so many people, once they realize that, they’re going to be some successful young women growing up.”
Central Noble (25-2) advances to play South Adams (16-9) in the second game of the Winamac Regional.