ELKHART — With back-to-back games against two of the state’s top-ranked teams, Wawasee’s road to a girls basketball sectional championship seemed an unlikely one. Still, the Lady Warriors showed they were up for it.
After taking down ICGSA sixth-ranked Tippecanoe Valley in Friday’s Sectional 21 semifinal, Wawasee pushed host and third-rated Fairfield to the limit at Saturday’s title game. Unfortunately for the challengers, the Falcons made a few more plays down the stretch and hit their free throws when it mattered in a 42-34 thriller that was closer than the final margin showed.
“We didn’t hit enough shots tonight. The girls made the adjustments we needed to make to come all the way back and tie the game, we just couldn’t didn’t quite have enough to finish it,” said Wawasee head coach Matt Carpenter. “Give Fairfield a lot of credit because I don’t know what they were from the line in the fourth quarter… but that’s what a team does to earn a sectional championship — they hold onto the ball, they rebound and they make free throws down the stretch like that.”
“I told the girls at halftime ‘They’re going to claw back. They’re going to scratch. I know they’re going to come back,’ and, by golly, they sure did,” echoed Fairfield coach Brodie Garber. “You kind of wondered when that game got tied there for a little bit. It could’ve gone either way, really.
“It was a well-played ball game by both teams.”
An 11-2 second period put Fairfield in the driver’s seat. Wawasee was held scoreless for more than eight minutes stretching from Casey Schroeder’s wing 3 on a Hannah-Marie Lamle inside-out assist at the 2:49 stop of the first frame to Kabrea Rostochak’s driving scoop at the 2:57 stop of the second. The Falcons rattled off 12 straight points during the span — including eight points by reserve post Katie Lashley — and held an 18-7 advantage at the half.
“We walked into halftime, and we said ‘Hey, I’m proud of our defense,’” said Carpenter. “Only giving up 18 points to a team that has some great mismatches and some tough match-ups and can score inside and out. I was proud of our defense the whole game. Offensively we just had that lull there and could not find the motion and could not get the movement that we needed. And some of it was we had a couple good shots in there, and we just could not get them to fall.”
Still trailing by nine headed into the final stanza, Wawasee used a 7-1 start to the fourth quarter to cut its deficit down to one possession with Schroeder’s traditional three-point play on a Rostochak inbounds pass and a Felicity Bontrager foul in the paint. Aubrey Kuhn tied it up, 27-27, with a corner triple on a Lamle inside-out with 3:26 to go.
But Jordan Kintigh split a pair of free throws on the other end, and Bontrager ripped down the offensive rebound, finding Jenean Schwartz in the corner for a Fairfield 3 to push the Falcons back out to a 31-27 advantage, fire up the home crowd and force a Wawasee timeout.
“That was huge,” said Garber of Schwartz’s 3. “She’s kind of got that in her game. She’s kind of this quiet assassin in a way, and, boy, was that big because at that point it made it a two-possession game.”
The Warriors never got any closer as Fairfield converted 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch. All told, the Falcons converted 13 of 18 free throws in fourth — including 7 of 8 by senior guard Erica Zook — as part of 17-of-21 night from the foul line. Wawasee made 9 of its own 13 free throws in the decisive fourth period, but it wasn’t enough to get the Warriors over the top.
“From time to time this year when we’ve been up a lot we don’t hit a lot of our free throws. But here tonight when it mattered — I think Zook had a lot in that fourth quarter, maybe Kintigh a little bit — boy, we made them when we needed to, that’s for sure,” said Garber.
While Fairfield got balanced offensive production led by Zook’s 13 points and Kintigh’s 10, Schroeder notched a game-high 19 points with seven rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. Schroeder did a little of everything scoring the ball, knocking down a pair of 3s, attacking off the dribble, converting 5 of 7 free throws and even posting up some for her team.
“She’s the definition of a combo guard in my book,” said Carpenter of the junior.
“When she is a creator like that offensively in a variety of ways, it allows Aubrey to get some shots from the perimeter a little bit. It allows her to facilitate a little bit more as a point guard and not have to try to do everything. It allows Rostochak to get her feet set a little more and utilize some of her match-ups. It allows Hannah-Marie to not have to do everything in the middle of the floor by herself, and it puts Caitlin Wortinger in a situation on the floor where she doesn’t have to create — she can clean up or get a dump-down pass. All of that happens with one person elevating her game and using her tools.”
Saturday’s championship was a good measuring stick for the Warriors, who suffered their most lopsided loss of the season at Fairfield back on Nov. 7, a 63-26 rout. But they won four of their next five and continued steadily improving to play their best basketball at the end with wins in five of their last seven outings, both losses coming against top 10-ranked teams.
“When we got started at the beginning of the season it wasn’t smooth… and we come here early in the year, and we get thumped by Fairfield. They just took it to us, and at that moment we drew a line in the sand — between the coaching staff and the three seniors — and we said ‘This is never going to happen again. We are never going to get outworked and out-toughed. We might lose a basketball game, but it’s never going to be because of our heart and our toughness.’ And I give them credit — it never was,” Carpenter said.
“It allowed us to pull out some wins down the stretch here because of the growth that we showed. I can’t ask for anything more. I love this team.”
Fairfield (22-2) advances to play ninth-ranked Fort Wayne Concordia in the late semifinal at the Columbia City Regional following the opener between Marion and Hamilton Heights at 10 a.m. next Saturday, while Wawasee (13-11) bids goodbye to three seniors in Lamle, Rostochak and Kuhn.
“Those three seniors, I think they’re all four-year letter winners and they’ve been the heart and the backbone of this team all year,” said Carpenter. “A tremendous senior class last year, but I knew we were going to be OK. When you have Aubrey Kuhn and Kabrea Rostochak and Hannah-Marie Lamle coming back, you feel good about where you’re at.
“Those are three kids you want to go to battle with every night, and you know they’re going to lay it on the line for you and you know they’re going to rally the troops and put other people in position to have success.”